Is it fair for sex offenders to stay listed on a registry for life?

2013-08-26T06:30:00Z 2014-10-30T14:56:04Z Is it fair for sex offenders to stay listed on a registry for life?By Kevin McDermott kmcdermott@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8268 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS • On one side of the latest debate over Missouri’s sex-offender registry are people such as Daniel Ray Winfrey. In 1991, when Winfrey was 15, he and three others raped and murdered sisters Julie and Robin Kerry at the Chain of Rocks Bridge near St. Louis.

Winfrey testified against his co-defendants in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence. Though back in prison, he has been paroled twice since his conviction. At those times, he was free but still listed on the state’s sex-offender registry website. That website, Gov. Jay Nixon argues, is the only way for most neighbors and others to know of the potential danger while such offenders are among them.

“You wouldn’t want to know if one of these guys moved in next door?” Nixon asked last week.

He was defending his veto of a bill that would remove from the website all offenders who, like Winfrey, were under 18 when they committed their crimes.

On the other side are people such as Ali Nemec’s fiancé. He was 17 when he was arrested for having child pornography on his computer. Now 24 and still listed on the registry website, he’s had difficulty at work, has been been turned away from housing and lives with his parents.

“We can’t go to a park, we can’t go to a mall. If there’s an event with our friends near a school, we can’t go,” said Nemec, 23, of St. Peters. “He made a mistake ... (but) he is not the boy that he was. There’s no reason to ruin him for the rest of his life.”

The registry is today’s ultimate “scarlet letter.” Long after they’ve served their time, sex offenders remain barred from parks and schools and limited in their employment and housing options. Their names and faces are posted on the Internet, easily accessible to friends and neighbors.

In Missouri, they stay listed for life, even if they were juveniles when they committed their crimes. The state Legislature passed this year a bill to change that. Nixon vetoed it, potentially setting up an emotionally charged veto fight next month.

The bill would remove from the sex-offender registry website hundreds of offenders such as Nemec’s fiancé and Winfrey, whose crimes were very different but who were both under 18 when they committed them. By one estimate, the bill would cull about 870 names from the more than 13,000 on the site, in addition to future offenders in the same situation.

Those offenders would still be listed on the registry itself, accessible to law enforcement and anyone from the public who requests the information. But the bill would allow the offenders to petition for complete removal from the registry starting five years after the end of their sentences.

‘SERVED THEIR DEBT’

“These kids have served their debt to society. They are adults now and haven’t done anything wrong since,” said Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, a co-sponsor of the measure.

He and others note that listed offenders have high unemployment rates because many employers won’t hire them. “We’re just trying to give them another shot at being productive citizens.”

Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed the bill in July, arguing that it makes no distinction between relatively minor offenders and those who used force or violence.

In a news conference at St. Louis police headquarters last week, defending the veto amid the backdrop of uniformed officers, the governor warned that the measure could make Missouri a haven for sex offenders from other states who want to hide from their pasts.

“Missourians use this important public information tool,” said Nixon, noting there were about 4.2 million visitors on the state’s main sex offender registry website last year alone. To remove one class of offenders from the site “in one fell swoop,” without regard to the details of their crimes, he argued, is “disrespectful to the victims.”

In Missouri, and nationally, the issues connected to sex-offender registries — who should be on them, how long they should stay listed — have been in flux for years, with opposing interests battling to tighten or loosen the requirements.

The concept behind the lists is that because of the high rate of repeat offenses among sex offenders, the public needs to be warned of their whereabouts even after their sentences are served. Civil libertarians have long argued that this amounts to an unconstitutional open-ended punishment, but courts have generally upheld the registries.

“It’s different with sex criminals. There is a very high recidivism rate,” said Emily van Schenkhof, who lobbies for Missouri Kids First. “Because of the serial nature of sexual offending ... sex offenders have to be treated differently.”

Missouri’s system is tougher than some because once a person is on the list, he or she is on it for life, regardless of the severity of the original crime or the offender’s age at the time.

Illinois, in contrast, has a lifetime tier and a 10-year tier, based on the details of the crime. People who commit crimes as juveniles have to register, but they aren’t listed on the registry’s public website.

‘ROMEO AND JULIET’

In both states, as in most other jurisdictions, the public listing is accompanied by rules prohibiting offenders from going certain places, such as playgrounds.

Critics claim that the registry nets are cast so widely they often catch people who most would agree aren’t sexual threats. One commonly cited example are the so-called “Romeo and Juliet” offenders, who had consensual sex with teenage lovers, sometimes when they themselves were teenagers.

Critics say those pitfalls in the system are especially ominous in Missouri, where juvenile crimes are listed for life.

“We want young people who have made foolish mistakes to have the opportunity for a second chance,” argued Sharie Keil of Missouri Citizens for Reform, a group made up of listed offenders and their relatives and supporters. “To hold a 12-year-old accountable is important … (but) I’m not sure it helps anything to punish them for life for something they did when they were 12.”

For Nemec, who agreed to be interviewed about her fiancé on the condition that his name not be used, the issue extends beyond public embarrassment and girded movements. “I want to take his name,” she said, “but I’m afraid ... it would affect me for the rest of my life.”

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, told The Associated Press that Nixon’s veto is “ripe for override” when the Legislature reconvenes for its veto session Sept. 11. Nixon expressed anger last week at what he alleged was the cavalier tone of that comment, “as if this was some sort of contest.”

“The Speaker stands ready to help these sex offenders … hide from the public,” alleged Nixon.

Jones didn’t reply to requests for comment last week.

To override a veto requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber. The original bill sailed through the Legislature with just four “no” votes, all Republicans. But that doesn’t mean an override is assured, because it would require many of Nixon’s fellow Democrats to vote against him on a bill they previously supported.

“If the (override) vote was held today, it would be iffy,” said Hinson, the co-sponsor. “We’ve had bills that have passed overwhelmingly ... but when it came to the veto, the Democrats stuck with the governor. That’s the politics of it.”

The bill is HB 301.

Follow Kevin McDermott on Twitter @kevinmcdermott

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