The phony “tough-on-crime” environment could prevent Missouri lawmakers from doing what they should to reform the state’s sex-offender registry.
There is no question that the registry needs work. It has been operating since the mid-1990s, when federal and state governments created “Megan’s Laws” in response to the murder of a 7-year-old in New Jersey. Megan Kanka was killed by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street.
At the federal level, Megan’s Law is officially known as the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act of 1994.
It requires people convicted of sex crimes against children to notify local law enforcement of a change of address or employment after release from custody.
When sex offender registries were created, the World Wide Web was booming. It offered promise as a tool for the public to track criminals who had committed sexual crimes against children. Parents were told how to log on to a state website for registered sexual offenders. There, with the click of a mouse, they could find a map of their community with red arrows indicating where sex offenders lived.
A lot has happened in the world since 1994: 9/11; Osama bin Laden; New Orleans destroyed and rebuilt, to name but a few of them. Missouri’s sex-offender registry, however, remains the same.
Studies disproving the effectiveness of such registries have proliferated. Extensive research has been conducted on the types of sexual offenders who will repeat their crimes, and the frequency — or more often, infrequency — that it happens.
A study by the state of Michigan showed an average of just 3.5 percent of registered sex offenders repeat their crimes. The other 96.5 percent do not. As a group, sex offenders have among the lowest recidivism rates in the criminal justice system.
It’s the monsters who get the headlines and make politicians afraid of the repercussions that would come from supporting efforts to reform the registry to be more reflective of reality.
The reality is that being listed on the registry can destroy a person’s life. In some cases, that’s fine. It’s hard to sympathize with a child rapist, or any rapist for that matter. But for others, being listed on the registry can lead to trouble finding jobs and housing and send neighbors and friends running.
Missouri keeps registrants on the list forever, no matter how young they might have been when they offended or the severity of their offense. This is overkill, particularly in light of some of the evidence that not all sex offenders are likely to be repeat offenders.
It’s time to get unlikely repeat offenders off the state’s registry so they can get on with their lives. Missouri lawmakers took a step in that direction this year when they passed HB 301. It would remove from the sex offender registry all the names of those whose crimes were committed when they were under age 18.
It was a remarkable victory for the “smart on crime” movement that the Republican-dominated legislature put together a bipartisan coalition to pass the bill. This is one area where the Missouri legislature has made good strides in recent years, passing judicial reforms that should reduce corrections costs, for instance, and beginning work on a rewrite of the state’s criminal code.
But Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who built his reputation as attorney general as being “tough on crime,” vetoed the bill. In vetoing the bill, Nixon said it did not distinguish between relatively minor offenders and those who used force or violence in their crimes. He said it was wrong to remove a class of offenders from the site without regard for their crimes and noted the offender website had 4.2 million visitors last year, making it an important public information tool.
We agree with Nixon that the bill is imperfect, but those imperfections must be kept in perspective with the value of the entire bill.
It has been estimated that HB 301 would cut about 870 names from more than 13,000 on the Missouri registry’s website.
The offenders would still be listed on the registry for law enforcement access and anyone from the public who requests the information, but the bill would allow offenders to petition for complete removal starting five years after the end of their sentences. That seems fair.
Critics call the registries “vigilante charters,” and cite cases such as that of William Elliott, a Maine teenager and a Romeo-Juliet offender — his girlfriend was not quite 16 and he was a teen himself when the two had consensual sex. Elliott was killed by a pedophile-hunter after being located on an offender list.
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, favors overriding the governor’s veto even though the bill needs to be improved. But he doubts there is enough political will for the override.
“Everyone’s afraid of the commercial that says ‘You’re soft on sex offenders,’ ” Kelly said.
Lawmakers are elected to do tough jobs, not to take politically narrow and comfortable positions to position themselves for re-election.
They should side with Mr. Kelly.
Override the veto in September and finish the reform next year.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.