A law that takes effect Tuesday not only increases the minimum legal age for marriage to 16 — it also ends Missouri’s 23-year approach to keeping all sex offenders on a public registry for life.

Senate Bill 655, signed into law in July by Gov. Mike Parson, establishes a system of tiers based on the severity of each sexual offense. The existing law requires convicted sexual offenders who are not incarcerated — nearly 20,000 residents of the state — to regularly report in person to law enforcement officials, who maintain a public database of their identities and addresses.

Under the new law, offenders who maintain clean criminal records and meet additional requirements will be allowed to petition for removal upon reaching certain milestones for each tier. But getting off the registry will not be simple or easy, public safety officials say.

“People will not be dropping off the list as of Aug. 28,” said Maj. Tom Reddin, chief deputy of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, which maintains the registry of 313 convicted offenders who live in the county. “Qualified offenders must petition to the court to be removed from the registry,” he said.

Law enforcement officials at the state and local levels are now meeting to establish procedures for the review of petitions to be removed from the registry. Detective Tony Perkins of the sheriff’s department has been studying how to classify offenders into tiers, especially those coming in to register at the end of August. “Based on their crimes, the majority of registrants in Boone County are Tier III offenders, who, for the most part, do not qualify for petitions,” Perkins said.

“Everyone is working really hard to get the new law into place and into perspective, so that we could make the transition as smoothly as possible,” Reddin said.

Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Merilee Crockett says the new law won’t likely remove many people from the registry.

“I don’t think there are as many people as you’d think that had kept a perfectly clean record for this whole time,” she said.

Rep. Kurt Bahr, the St. Charles Republican who authored the legislation, told the Missourian this is “the first substantial legislative change in sex offender law” since Missouri first established a statewide registry in 1995.

“I became a hero to families that were adversely affected by the sex offender list,” Bahr said. “Not exactly the thing I was trying to do, but something I achieved.”

Prior to this change, Missouri was one of 17 states with a flat lifetime requirement to register. It treated all sex offenders — regardless of their crimes — as harshly as some states punish their highest-risk predators.

Bahr became aware of Missouri’s “one-size-fits-all” approach only when a constituent he knew personally became a registered sex offender. “I found out that he was going to be on the sex offender list for the rest of his life, for a relatively minor offense,” Bahr said.

The next year he drafted a bill that would change that. It took him another two years to push it to a vote. Last year, his bill died early, soon after leaving a House committee. This time, it made it to the Senate floor. And Bahr was certain it would pass.

“There was no opposition that I knew of,” he said. But the Senate did not take action on it, which left Bahr “somewhat surprised,” he said. “Like everything else in the General Assembly, time is the enemy of all legislation, and my underlying bill was facing the same fate.”

With the session clock ticking, Bahr pushed his sex offender provisions as amendments to Senate Bill 655, sponsored by Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, which would remove a statute of limitations on sex crimes against children. A bill against child marriage sponsored by Rep. Jean Evans, R-St. Louis, was lumped into the same package of legislation.

Bahr said the process is “a common thing” in the General Assembly, especially during the last week of session after bills have been fully vetted.

Once the law goes into effect Tuesday, Bahr expects to see “a large excess of people” to start petitioning. But this is only during the first year or two. After that, he said, removal from the registry will solely be based upon fulfilling a registration requirement, designated for each tier.

The Missourian previously reported that in the past 10 years Missouri removed only 175 offenders from the registry, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol in response to a records request. That’s essentially the same number of offenders that Kansas removes every year as a result of its tiered registration system. Like the Kansas law, the tiers of the new Missouri law closely mirrors the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.

According to Bahr, Tier I offenders will be on the registry for 15 years. Tier II offenders, which are “more egregious types of offenders,” can petition after 25 years, which is “a decently long-enough time,” he said.

Tier III offenders fall under the broadest category. “Those are the people who are rapists and child molesters, and they are on the list for life,” Bahr said. “This law doesn’t change that.”

Elizabeth Herrera Eichenberger, executive director of True North of Columbia, a shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence, said she was not ready to comment on the new law.

Amy Fite, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the only exception that would allow a Tier III offender to petition to leave the list would be if the offender had committed a crime as a juvenile and managed to maintain a clean record for 25 years.

The law is designed to encourage registrants not to reoffend, Bahr said, by providing them an opportunity to petition for removal from the public registry and the burden of regularly checking in with law enforcement. But Fite emphasized that the law does not guarantee removal from the registry — it only provides an opportunity for petitioning.

“By allowing more people to petition to be removed, this will make the list far more useful and explicit to the general public,” Bahr said.

Supervising editor is Mike Jenner.

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