ANALYSIS

A Tough Question: Is Missouri's Sex-Offender Registry Working?

Part 1: The Rationale for Sex Registries and Their Limits

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A Tough Question: Is Missouri's Sex-Offender Registry Working?

Missouri's Sex Offender Registry lists more than 19,000 sex offenders in the state.

Only about 2,200 are behind bars. Nearly all of the rest live in communities throughout the state, and for those communities, the registry is designed to keep the public informed, with the aim of preventing repeat offenses and stopping sex crimes before they happen.

But by that metric, are Sex Offender Registries (SORs) actually working? Can they work?

The Lake of the Ozarks community has seen far too many sex crimes against children in recent years, some of which took place in local schools.

In the past year, the Lake of the Ozarks community has seen three different school employees—a principal, a teacher, and a janitor—charged with varying crimes all related to sexual abuse or sexual misconduct with a student. On March 13, 2019, Joseph Devore was charged with two counts of Class E Felony Sexual Misconduct with a Child Under 15, after he allegedly exposed himself to a student in the bathroom of Oak Ridge Intermediate School, in the Camdenton R-III School District. The probable cause statement for his arrest said he had been a suspect multiple times in previously alleged incidents of sexual misconduct, but had never been charged. In February of 2018, Joseph Perry Rice IV, K-12 Principal at Climax Springs R-IV school district, was accused of soliciting sex and nude photos from a former student in the Miller County R-III School District.

In one of the most recent cases, School of the Osage teacher Mark Edwards pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a girl on a school bus. The incident was caught on camera and Edwards ultimately admitted to it. Edwards was set to be sentenced on Friday, Feb. 14.

None of those alleged offenders were on the sex offender registry.

Missouri’s State Auditor Nicole Galloway released an audit of Missouri’s Sex Offender Registry in 2018, criticizing its implementation at the local level and the database's maintenance by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Galloway called for increased funding and due diligence in updating the registry. Sheriff's departments are responsible for entering new registrants and reregistering those who move, and following Galloway's assessment, the Missouri Sheriffs' Association pushed back.

And while those entities debate whether Missouri's SOR is being maintained properly, other professionals, both local and national, have challenged the effectiveness of sex offender registries altogether.

A Rationale for Registering Sex Offenders

Preying upon society’s most vulnerable is a crime. When the crime is against children and is sexual in nature, American society generally expects government protection from those criminals: through overseeing and implementing laws written to protect its most vulnerable members, the ones too young to understand, recognize, or fight back against threats to their safety or lives.

Sex Offender Registries require those convicted of sex offenses to register with local law enforcement, for their name, photo, and address to be placed in a public database.

A History: How SORN (Sex Offender Registration Notification) Developed

Sex Offender Registries were introduced at the federal level in 1994 after Jacob Wetterling, age 11, was abducted and murdered by a serial predator who remained at large until 2016. During the intervening 22 years, Jacob’s killer was never identified or convicted of other sex crimes. At the time he confessed, he had never been listed on any registry. The law that created the registries was known as the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act.

Jacob’s parents created a foundation to educate the public and lobbied successfully for a sex registry, but his mother, Patty Wetterling, has since withdrawn her support for registries. She has said her passionate advocacy for registration was based upon a flawed belief that recidivism rates among sex offenders are much higher than they actually are (from Acknowledgements in No Easy Answers, Human Rights Watch, September 11, 2007).

In spite of voices like Mrs. Wetterling’s and data showing only 6 percent of sex offenders reoffend, the public’s belief in the efficacy of sex offender registries and in high recidivism rates has led to federal laws that expand the scope and aims of the registries. In 1996, Megan’s Law allowed states to make private and personal registry information available to the public. Killed by a two-time offender who lived across the street, Megan Kanka’s family argued that had his offenses been known to them, they might have been better able to protect her. They lobbied to make such information available to the community.

Amendments to the Jacob Wetterling Act were added over the years.

The Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act of 1996 amended the Jacob Wetterling Act, giving law enforcement the ability to track offenders from location to location, and it extended the length of time offenders are required to register, from 10 years (previously) to life. The Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act also amended the 1996 law, requiring registered offenders enrolled as students on a college campus to be tracked, further broadening community reporting.

In 2014, five states required nursing homes to warn residents if a convicted sex offender would become a resident. Most recently, the Adam Walsh organization lobbied and succeeded in developing a three-tier offender registry requiring different time periods for registry compliance when a perpetrator is convicted of a lesser crime, instead of condemning all offenders to a lifetime of compliance. 

Each of the crimes that resulted in these laws, from Jacob Wetterling to Pam Lychner, was heinous: they imprinted on the community’s psyche and shaped policy. Professor Molly Wilson of the St. Louis University Law School with a degree in law and a PhD in psychology explained the salacious nature of these crimes influences public perception because, as she notes, “The human mind is designed to think of the sensory cases that imprint details—an image of a bicycle that a girl was riding sticking out of the bushes”... or a small boy beheaded by a serial predator. Communities take extraordinary steps to prevent those kinds of crimes from ever being committed again.

Are Communities Safer?

Registries may make the public feel more secure, by making offenders and their offenses known to communities.

Yet all sex offenders are required to register, and many will bear the badge of public disdain up to the end of their lifetimes due to their required continued presence on the registry. National sex offender registries listed 843,260 individuals as of June 2015, according to data published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

However, Dr. Wilson asserts that no study has thus far linked registries to outcomes. The recidivism (repeat-offense) rate of sex crime offenders in a three-year period after their release from incarceration was 5.3 percent (3.5 percent were convicted), according to a study published by Department of Justice, and considered to be the largest study on the issue. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 198281, 2003, pg. 24) The study was published in 2003, and it assessed 272,111 prisoners who were released in 1994—the same year the federal government introduced sex offender registries. Of those prisoners, 9,691 were sex offenders.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol's Sex Offender Fact Sheet explains, "Because sex offenders were more likely to re-offend (Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 198281, 2003), lawmakers felt this constituted more regulation."

It is true that sex offenders had a higher percentage likelihood of committing a sex crime after being released from prison, compared with non-sex offenders, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics study (relevant excerpt below). But the numbers actually reinforce the opposite point: the vast majority of sex crimes committed in the three-year post-release period included in the study were committed by prior prisoners who had not been sex offenders. In other words, although it's true that, on a percentage basis, prior sex offenders were more likely in the future to commit a sex crime that prior non-sex-offense criminals, the majority of future sex crimes would be committed by the latter group -- the prior non-sex-offense criminals. Here's the relevant text from that study:

The 15 States in this study released a total of 272,111 prisoners in 1994. The 9,691 released sex offenders made up less than 4% of that total. Of the remaining 262,420 non-sex offenders, 3,328 (1.3%) were rearrested for a new sex crime within 3 years (not shown in table). By comparison, the 5.3% rearrest rate for the 9,691 released sex offenders was 4 times higher.

Assuming that the 517 sex offenders who were rearrested for another sex crime each victimized no more than one victim, the number of sex crimes they committed after their prison release totaled 517. Assuming that the 3,328 non-sex offenders rearrested for a sex crime after their release also victimized one victim each, the number of sex crimes they committed was 3,328. The combined total number of sex crimes is 3,845 (517 plus 3,328 = 3,845). Released sex offenders accounted for 13% and released non-sex offenders accounted for 87% of the 3,845 sex crimes committed by all the prisoners released in 1994 (517 / 3,845 = 13% and 3,328 / 3,845 = 87%).

Unintended Consequences of a Sex Offender Registry

All sex offenses, no matter the circumstances or their severity, were originally lumped together in the requirements for registration. That created a complex set of legal problems. One of the most problematic was statutory rape. In Missouri, like most states, statutory rape is a strict liability crime. A defendant cannot argue that the victim consented, or the victim lied about his or her age, or that the defendant had reason to believe the victim was past the age of consent.

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld this standard in State v. Stokely (1992) when the court affirmed Stokely’s conviction for statutory rape. "'[A]ge is the essential element in statutory rape,' and the intent of the perpetrator and the consent of the victim are irrelevant," the court said at the time, referencing State v. Baker. Stokely tried to argue the victim misrepresented her age, but the court would not permit that argument.

While Stokely’s case predates sex registry legislation, it illustrates how a felon could be punished for a lifetime--required to register as a sex offender his entire life--even though the circumstances of the crime may not warrant being stigmatized for life. That is, in fact, why the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act amends the penalties for sex offenses, establishing a three-tiered system categorizing offenses according to their severity and revising the registry requirements accordingly.

Benefits To Law Enforcement?

The original intent of the registries was to aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes. So, law enforcement, having been given another resource to prevent and solve crimes, tends to view the system positively. However, a general search of the literature and statistical databases within the criminal justice system of the United States does not reveal a single document supporting real benefits to any enforcement agency. In fact, sex registries appear to be blunt tools

  • even if the registries contain accurate current residential and work addresses,
  • even if the registries contain DNA information on registrants, and
  • even if an investigating agency immediately queried the registries for known offenders living within the vicinity of a current sex crime investigation.

In addition, perpetrator residence and victim location are not necessarily correlated. It may seem intuitive that proximity is a factor for offenders, but this is not borne out in reality. Therefore, requirements forcing convicted offenders to live certain distances from where children live and learn appear unnecessary.

Unreported Crimes

Additionally, the number of unreported sex crimes suggests registries cannot contain all the potential perpetrators of these crimes. Those caught, punished, and registered have the most motivation not to repeat their crimes while those who have never been caught and do not appear on any list for police or public scrutiny have no such motivator to refrain from their criminal behaviors.  

On the other hand Camden County Prosecutor Heather Miller says sex-offender trainings she's attended have said recidivism rates can be deceptive. “The speakers have talked about their work with rehabilitation programs. What they have found is… programs that cite low instances of recidivism.” But in reality, Miller learned, the abuse sometimes continued at home, after the abuser got out of prison.

The threat of enduring again the emotional anguish and utter disruption brought on by charges and another trial may actually keep some victims quiet. This reveals the challenge of identifying the true pervasiveness of sex crimes: it's frequently not obvious who is a victim (compared with other crimes like assault, theft, or murder), and victims take immense risks by coming forward.

The sex offending continues, and it becomes “a dirty family secret,” Miller said. A registry wouldn’t help with that, she noted, and recidivism rates won’t show it.

Public Safety vs Offender Rehabilitation

SORN is perceived by registrants and treatment providers as impeding effective community integration of an offender after they've served their sentence. They also see it as a disproportionate, if not illegal, consequence to the crime; this complaint has given rise to court cases.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol's Sex Offender Fact Sheet acknowledges these and other contentions raised against sex offender registries.

But in general, courts have held legislatures have the authority to enact legislation protecting citizens as long as the protections do not violate constitutional protections or citizen rights. In addition, the courts assert that in spite of an additional layer to the convicted offenders’ requirements upon sentencing, there exists a legitimate public protection interest that outweighs the potential punitive results of registration. The balancing test comes down on the protection side of the question.

Missouri enacted its legislation to protect children from sexual predators in 1995, and like other states, Missouri required those convicted of a listed sex crime to register with their personal information, including name, birth date, Social Security number, and permanent residential address. Furthermore, those required to register must report when their residential address changes. The elected sheriff in each county is responsible for insuring that those convicted of sexual offenses are properly entered into the data base and for tracking those previously entered with reregistration if there is a change of address.

Registration requirements also govern proximity to certain institutions such as schools and daycare facilities. Rules even govern the offender’s behavior on Halloween! Sex offenders are required to turn off all outside lights, stay inside the residence for certain hours on Halloween night, and post a note at the front door stating there are no treats at that residence.

Missouri’s registry system has been impacted by several Missouri Supreme Court decisions as well as changes in federal law. One decision involves the constitutional question of retrospective laws—an ex post facto law that criminalizes behavior that was not criminal at the time it occurred. Prior to Supreme Court review, Missouri’s registry system required those who were convicted prior to the creation of a registry to comply with registration laws. Although the courts generally found that the legislature had a legitimate interest in tracking those convicted of sexual offenses as a matter of public safety, and to that extent, the registry was not punitive in nature, the courts nevertheless held the registry is an additional consequence of the crime and as such cannot be imposed retrospectively.

The Auditor’s Critique of Missouri’s SORN

The Missouri State Highway Patrol maintains the statewide database, including timely updates to the data. The Patrol is also responsible for public dissemination of the information. Missouri’s Patrol provides the registry to the public on its website where it may be accessed in order to make informed decisions about a potential victim’s exposure to sexual predators. The Patrol’s statuary mandate also requires that it interact with other governmental agencies insuring the statutory mandates are met legally and efficiently.

Auditor Galloway's report didn't focus on the overall effectiveness of registries, but criticized Missouri’s Sex Offender Registry both in implementation at the local sheriff’s level and maintenance of the database by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The report listed several failures at the county level, including: 

  • A high number of convicted offenders not reporting their address changes as required.
  • The location of 8% of those on the registry is currently unknown to law enforcement (an offender failure carrying an additional felony level charge for failing to inform the sheriff’s office).
  • Based on the low number of outstanding arrest warrants corresponding to these persons whose whereabouts do no match the resitry, few of those failing to comply are actually charged with the additional crime. This effectively means contact with other law enforcement agencies cannot result in the offender being brought back into the system.

The auditor’s report pointed to the need for the Patrol to have better policies concerning its duties regarding timely and accurate updates to the database. Otherwise, Galloway asserts, registry information is of no value to the public. She said fewer than 10% of non-compliant registrants had outstanding warrants, and without a warrant for arrest, other agencies encountering these individuals through routine traffic stops or other contacts are not able to hold the individual for return into the system. In practice and design, the person with the most to gain from drifting out of the system by not reregistering is the one required to initiate the changes to the database: the offender.

The Missouri Sheriff's Association issued a scathing response, questioning the basis of Galloway's conclusions. The full response is published below.

The responsibilities of maintaining and enforcing a sex offender registry create budgetary needs for county sheriffs and the Patrol. Furthermore, tracking down an offender who has moved but failed to report a new address falls on the sheriff’s office and could require a field deputy be assigned the full-time job of following up on every offender on a county’s database. In light of these factors, perhaps more funding could be helpful.

But helpful for what? The public good? Keeping communities safer?

Everything has a cost, and sex offender registries are no exception. And wisdom weighs costs against benefits.

But as communities like the Lake of the Ozarks reel from high-profile case after case after case in recent years—not to mention the many cases that don't make headlines or are simply never reported—wisdom may begin by asking: are sex offender registries helping us at all?

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For more information about Missouri's Sex Offender Registry, visit the MSHP's Fact Sheet page and related links.

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Missouri Sheriff's Association's Response To Auditor Galloway's Report:

Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway published false assertions in her official report regarding the oversight and control of the Missouri sex offender registry program that incorrectly placed law enforcement in a negative light. The Auditor’s numbers and information just don’t add up.

First, the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association contacted all sheriffs in Missouri who in turn stated they were not contacted by the Auditor or her staff to discuss the issue of registration of sex offenders. Previous auditors, showing respect, contacted local sheriffs who in turn provided input and expertise into the administration of the sex offender registry. Had this auditor done her due diligence, as did previous auditors, she would have uncovered the truth behind the numbers of offenders she alleges are unaccounted for in Missouri.

Second, the Auditor’s assertion that the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association declined to provide a response to the issues noted in her report is a flat out lie. Prior to the audit findings being published, I personally met with Audit Manager Joshua Allen from the auditor’s office on July 19, 2018 in my office at the Sheriffs’ Association in Jefferson City. I shared factors that could influence the low totals of outstanding warrants for noncompliant sex offenders. We discussed certain enforcement and prosecution priorities as well as various reasons contributing to warrants not being obtained for noncompliant sex offenders.

At the conclusion of her audit, neither the Auditor nor the Auditor’s designated representative shared a copy of a draft report of the audit with either the Sheriffs’ Association or any sheriff. Instead, Auditor Galloway rushed her report to the press without an opportunity for sheriffs to discuss the draft or to review and rebut the false assertions of her final report and findings. This failure to communicate her findings shows callousness for law enforcement and a total misunderstanding of the basic concepts of a criminal investigation.

Third, sheriffs of Missouri take this matter very seriously. The failure of a sex offender to register as required is a crime and handled with the same protocols as with other crimes. If a sex offender fails to report upon moving, a criminal investigation must be started and evidence must be obtained to provide the prosecutor with sufficient evidence to initiate charges. The Constitution requires no less for this and other serious crimes.

Lastly, the numbers asserted by Auditor Galloway just don’t hold up under review. Had she simply contacted the sheriffs for input before releasing the report and not rushed to judgment, the Auditor would have discovered the number of those she asserts to be unaccounted for simply is not true. Some offenders are in prison and accounted for, some have passed away and accounted for and many others are in the process for criminal prosecution which requires an investigation, evidence to obtain a warrant and then interaction with the prosecutor and the Circuit Court. For instance, of those in Lawrence County who the Auditor says cannot be located:

3 offenders are in custody of the Missouri Department of Correction;

1 moved out of state and is no longer required to register in Missouri;

1 is deceased;

3 have active warrants for failure to register;

3 have active investigations and warrants will likely be issued soon;

1 has information sent to PA awaiting warrant issuance.

Other counties have similar information that refutes the Auditor’s false claim that these offenders are simply hiding in Missouri without a trace. The audit report is written to make it appear Missouri sheriffs and prosecutors are not doing their jobs. It shows a disregard for and a complete misunderstanding of the important role these offices play in Missouri.

When I asked which sheriffs the Auditor contacted to confirm data prior to publishing her findings, the Auditor’s office hid behind state statutes stating it would not release information related to the Audit. Previous auditors published who they contacted in their reports. If the issue is really one of ensuring the sex offender law is properly enforced, it is imperative that the auditor’s office exhibit nonbiased reporting in an open and transparent manner.

I encourage anyone who has concerns or questions about sex offender registration to contact their local sheriff.

The Missouri Sheriffs’ Association is a 501c(3) nonprofit association. The Missouri Sheriffs’ Association advances the office of Sheriff, public awareness of the office of Sheriff and is the largest law enforcement training organization in Missouri."

Kevin Merritt

Executive Director

Missouri Sheriffs’ Association

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