In an effort to keep Missouri children safe, lawmakers have enacted half a dozen laws over the past decade that restrict the rights of convicted sex offenders living among us.
For example, these laws govern how frequently they must register with the Sheriff’s Department, whether or not they may have an email address or any online presence, or whether they can distribute Halloween candy. The most restrictive laws control where these offenders can live or loiter.
A Columbia Missourian analysis of residency restrictions revealed sex offender laws are complicated and ever-changing, posing significant challenges for officials responsible for public safety. Experts say, however, there is no hard evidence that Missouri’s restrictions have had any effect on recidivism.
Detective Tony Perkins of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department is in charge of monitoring a sex offender registry of more than 300 people.
“It’s a very labor-intensive and time-consuming effort,” Perkins said.
He spends 40 hours a week running offender registration and profiles. Four times a year, seven more detectives join him for door-to-door check-ins. Four school officers help out during the summer. But for the most part, it’s just Perkins.
Sex offenders in Columbia
Lawmakers came up with a 1,000-foot restriction barring sex offenders, who have satisfied their sentences, from living too close to schools and day care centers. But a Missourian investigation identified 32 registrants residing within those restricted zones.
Nine of the 32 offenders have committed more than one offense. Five have been convicted of three to six counts of crimes ranging from possession of child pornography to aggravated, or violent, sexual assault.
Except for one offender, all are compliant with the law, said Maj. Tom Reddin, chief deputy of the Sheriff’s Department.
Meanwhile, day care providers open up their small businesses inside their homes, often oblivious to the fact that sex offenders live within 1,000 feet. Offenders then become grandfathered, allowed to remain where they are.
A geospatial analysis of the Missouri Sex Offender Registry and a public listing of Regulated Childcare Facilities revealed:
Thirty-two registered sex offenders live within 1,000 feet of a school or day care — one as close as 135 feet away.Of the 32 offenders, 31 are grandfathered in place and are not subject to relocation.Twenty-four schools and day care centers in Columbia have at least one sex offender living within 1,000 feet. Half of them are home-operated day cares licensed to serve up to 10 children. Three of the 24 locations are elementary schools, including Blue Ridge, West Boulevard and Parkade.Two day care owners opened their home businesses without knowing they were surrounded by five registered sex offenders just a stone’s throw away. This does not affect their licenses as child care providers.A high concentration of registered sex offenders live in northern Columbia.More than a dozen offenders live in budget hotels, paying $175 a week in rent.Columbia has 169 schools and day cares. Two-thirds of the city’s 64 square miles allow sex offenders places to live without breaking the 1,000-foot residency restrictions. The space is roughly equivalent to half the size of Jefferson City.
‘Extremely complex’ restrictions
In 1996, Alabama became the first state to restrict where sex offenders could live. Missouri followed suit 10 years later, joining 14 other states with similar rules. Today, nearly 30 states enforce residency restrictions, which range anywhere from 500 to 2,000 feet, according to the Center for Sex Offender Management.
Over the years, Missouri lawmakers have continued to tweak the law, and the state’s highest court has amended it three times, going back-and-forth over who qualifies for a 1,000-foot rule.
In 2010, the law was changed to apply restrictions to those who offended before the residency statute went into effect in 2004. But three years later, the Supreme Court ended the ongoing debate on retroactive punishment, regulating behavior going forward but not backward.
Ben Trachtenberg, associate professor of law at MU, said the state’s retrospective clause differs from the similar clause in the federal Constitution.
“The idea is you can’t change the law after the facts have happened,” he said.
In explaining the court ruling, Trachtenberg said, “While it’s true that you became a sex offender before we passed a law, we are only regulating your future conduct. There is no ex post facto violation.”
The 2013 Missouri Supreme Court ruling affected 38 percent of the registrants who were previously exempt from the 1,000-foot rule, according to a Missourian analysis. It’s not that their convictions didn’t match a list of 41 qualifying sex crimes ranging in severity from sexual misconduct to rape. But rather, their crimes were committed before the statute’s effective date of Aug. 28, 2004. That narrowing of the legal threshold threw 6,807 offenders off the hook statewide.
Keeping up with the law is “extremely complex,” especially because it changes so often, Reddin said. “You literally have to look at what the new change might be and then apply that to the folks that we have in our registry and see how it affects them.”
Missouri’s law allows offenders to live near schools and day cares if the offender was there first. Of the 32 Columbia offenders identified in the investigation, 31 are grandfathered in, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
“It’s written as such, that if they are already there, and a day care opens up, it does not force them to move,” Reddin said. “However, if they move, they have to move to a location that is no longer within a 1,000 feet of any school or day care. And they will not be able to return back to the old address as long as that day care exists.”
Just across the state line, things are different. Illinois requires sex offenders to move every time a new child care facility opens up within 500 feet of their homes — unless they owned the property before July 7, 2000, the law’s effective date.
Trachtenberg wouldn’t call Missouri’s grandfathering clause a loophole. “It’s a sensible enough compromise,” which prevents the system from being “needlessly punitive” for something beyond an offender’s control or intent, Trachtenberg said.
The law holds sex offenders responsible for notifying the sheriff’s office in person every time a new child care facility opens up within 1,000 feet of where they live. Failure to do so within a week is a misdemeanor that can land an offender in jail for up to a year. Any subsequent violation is a felony, carrying a prison sentence up to four years, said Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Merilee Crockett.
The location of offenders doesn’t play a role in the licensing decisions of the Department of Health and Senior Services — unless the proposed day care’s address matches a sex offender’s.
As part of their application process, day care operators undergo criminal background screening, and neighborhoods are checked for registered sex offenders residing nearby.
But, it is intended to be more of a risk prevention measure.
“If a sex offender resides within a 1,000 feet of the child care facility, Section for Child Care Regulation notifies the child care provider and requests a written safety plan to detail the actions the provider is going to take to ensure the safety of the children,” said Sara O’Connor, chief public information officer for the department.
One day care owner, who is surrounded by five registered sex offenders living in her neighborhood, said she didn’t check the registry prior to opening her business. She didn’t even know about the issue until a state regulator knocked on her door.
Currently serving six pre-kindergarten-age children, she declined to comment and did not want to be identified, afraid she would lose her customers.
Day cares come and go. So do sex offenders. Since late July, six registered sex offenders moved away from schools and day cares. One home-operated day care that shared a boundary with three sex offenders shut down.
Two home-operated day cares now have five registered sex offenders each living as close as 800 feet away.
According to Perkins, it is the responsibility of the parents and someone at the day care to be vigilant of their children.
“The list is not going to keep predators away from children. That’s a misconception,” he said. “The list itself is not producing safety. It’s just showing you where they live.”
Proximity to children
A 54-year-old Columbia man convicted of molesting his stepson unknowingly moved into a duplex within sight of a home-operated day care that had opened one month earlier.
He fell through the cracks because the child care provider database was not up to date. He is the sole sex offender in Columbia who is out of compliance with the law.
According to Perkins, when the offender checked in to register his current residential address, the day care center, which had opened a month earlier, did not yet show up in the database.
“It’s on us. He checked. We said, he can move there,” Perkins said. “He’s trying to do the right thing. Are you going to force him out? Are you going to arrest him?”
The offender plans to move out this month when his yearlong lease expires, the sheriff’s department said.
In tracking proximity of schools and day care centers to offenders’ residential addresses, the Sheriff’s Department relies on a statewide list of child care providers from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. According to O’Connor, the database gets updated by the fifth of each month. The sheriff’s department requests updates once every three months.
“That’s just the time interval we’ve been doing that at. There are so many things that the law enforcement agency is tasked to do and only so many people to do it. And we can’t do everything all the time — every day,” Reddin said.
To avoid another prison sentence, the offender has to move out. Crockett said a violation of a residency rule is a felony, resulting in a sentence of up to four years. A second or a subsequent violation can keep an offender locked up much longer — up to 15 years.
Last year the sheriff’s department charged 28 offenders with violating residency restrictions, Perkins said. Two offenders have been arrested since January; the other five remain under investigation and pending arrests.
Living too close to a child care facility is the most obvious violation of a residency restriction. But sometimes people do not live where they claim, Crockett said.
Permanent hotel residents
More than a dozen registered sex offenders live in budget hotels for roughly $175 a week.
“It’s not unusual at all anymore,” Reddin said. “That’s becoming more and more prevalent. Midway Motel is one of them; Welcome Inn is certainly another one.”
It’s a temporary option, not requiring background screening or credit history. “Yes, it’s a little bit more expensive, but that might be the only thing they can get — for a while,” Perkins said.
“My guess is the Welcome Inn doesn’t know how many sex offenders are staying at their location,” Reddin said. “Unless they get on the registry and look them up. But we physically go there and make sure they are living there.”
The Welcome Inn hung up when called for comment.
Residency rules and recidivism
Although Missouri law focuses on proximity of offenders to children, in nine out of 10 cases, victims and their assailants aren’t strangers, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Beth Huebner, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis sees residency restrictions as “a false safety.”
It’s not how sex offenders get access to children.
“Often times, the perpetrators are family members or close friends. Many of those cases go unreported, and people don’t know how to report them or feel shame,” Huebner said.
Assistant Division Director of Mental Health Services at the Missouri Department of Corrections Scott O’Kelley admits that a lot of sex offender laws and restrictions are based on “fear and revulsion,” rather than science.
Huebner said, “The assumption behind those restrictions (is) that if we limit individuals’ access to children, then we will have lower recidivism rates. But there is no evidence in Missouri that it has happened.”
Her research studied the impact of residency laws on recidivism rates in Missouri and Michigan — two states that upheld similar laws.
In Missouri, the effect was statistically insignificant — less than one percent, decreasing from 8 to 7.1 percent. Huebner’s estimates were based on two equal-sized samples, comparing more than 2,200 sex offenders against the same number of non-sex offenders two years before and after the laws were enacted.
Although it’s a valid measure for keeping high-rate sex offenders from victimizing children, Huebner said, the impact of this policy is still questionable.
“We don’t have a burglary registry; we don’t have a registry for physical assault,” O’Kelley said. “Those two crimes are much higher in terms of convictions and recidivism.”
According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, after five years, those convicted of non-violent and drug-related crimes are more than twice as likely to commit another crime than sex offenders. But the risk to re-offend goes up drastically — from 13 to 23 percent — among those who failed or refused to complete therapy treatment.
But these numbers could be skewed. According to O’Kelley, it’s more likely that a sex offender would face further penalties for failing to register than commit a new sexual offense, which would be classified as “sexual recidivism,” he said.
Trying to look beyond these numbers, O’Kelley asks: “Did he create a new victim? Was he potentially engaging in sexually offending behavior? Or was he upset that he drank a lot and did not register? Or did he live somewhere where he shouldn’t have lived?”
Being extra punitive doesn’t necessarily protect public safety. “It’s instability that often prompts people to re-offend,” O’Kelley said.
By Dariya Tsyrenzhapova