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Missouri lawmakers move to toughen sexual violence laws

Sunday, June 2, 2013 | 5:33 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Several measures aimed at strengthening Missouri's sex offender laws are in front of Gov. Jay Nixon, including an effort to lengthen prison sentences.

One proposal advanced by the legislature during the recently ended session would redefine the crime of rape to include instances when a victim lacked the capacity to consent to sex.

Under current law, rape is defined as sex with another person by "forcible compulsion," which includes using a substance to impair victims without their knowledge or approval. But the measure awaiting the governor's signature would define rape to also include crimes committed on someone who is "incapacitated, incapable of consent or lacks the capacity to consent."

"It reframes the crimes to include the experience of the victim of the crime. It is not the crime based on the offender's actions. It is the crime against the victim without her consent," said Colleen Coble, a lobbyist for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Under current law, victims cannot give "consent" if they have a mental illness or are intoxicated. The measure passed this year would add "drug-induced state or any other reason" to that definition. It also would delete a section of current law that allows the jury to find a person charged with rape not guilty if he or she "reasonably believed" the victim consented.

Coble said under the law's current language, an offender could only be tried with a misdemeanor if they sexually assaulted a victim sedated in a hospital room. By changing the definition of rape, she said, that example would become a felony, which currently carries a five-year minimum sentence.

The bill would also rename some sexual offenses and categorize them in tiers — first- and second-degree — which could allow a jury to convict someone of a lesser offense.

Joel Elmer, a division director for the Missouri public defender system, said all of these changes could cost Missouri taxpayers because more people may be in prison for longer.

"While there may be public support for increasing the punishment for this behavior, I don't think there is public support on spending more money on incarceration," he said.

Missouri is slated to spend $677 million on the Department of Corrections out of a roughly $25 billion budget during the next fiscal year.

Continuing their crackdown on sexual offenses, lawmakers also sought this year to reverse recent court rulings that could potentially allow certain "sexually violent predators" to be released.

A Missouri law that took effect in 1999 permits certain sex offenders to be civilly committed after completing their criminal sentences. It requires a mental abnormality and a "more likely than not" probability that the person would commit sexual violence if released.

It also requires an offender be convicted of a specific crime that's on a list of sexually violent offenses. Over time, lawmakers have changed the names and definitions of sexual offenses without changing the list of crimes needed for civil commitment.

Two Missouri Appeals Court decisions last year prevented the state from seeking civil commitments for offenders found guilty of crimes that no longer exist on the list. Lawmakers are hoping to override those court decisions and add old crimes to the list of violent crimes to correct the problem.

Although Missouri lawmakers passed tough measures, they also approved legislation that would ease restrictions for juveniles on the state's sex offender registry. People under the age of 18 convicted of sexual offenses would remain in the registry for law enforcement purposes but would no longer appear on public websites. They also could ultimately petition the court for removal from the registry entirely.


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