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Sexual Offender List May Soon Be on Internet

January 27, 1999
By: Melissa Miller
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB106, HB428

JEFFERSON CITY - A list of sex offenders may soon be posted on the Internet.

A bill that would publish registered sex offender's names, photographs, addresses and crime and physical description on the Department of Public Safety web page has been sponsored by Rep. Bill Luetkenhaus, D-Josephville. Other states, including Florida, California, and Virginia, have such programs.

A similar bill has been proposed by Rep. Brian May, D-St. Louis City, and Gov. Mel Carnahan has publicly supported this idea.

"We need to take some additional action for the further protection of our citizens...we need to make it [the list] available on the Internet," he said in his State of the State address last week.

Since August of 1997, a list of registered sexual offenders names, addresses and crime committed has been available at the county sherrif's's office for $5. In Boone County 43 people have accessed the list.

There is not a lack of interest in the list, it's just inconvenient to obtain, May said.

"You have to drive downtown during business hours, find a place to park, and then go ask for the list," he said. "If the list was on the internet working people could look at it from their office computers, or in the library or at their homes."

In addition to convenience, Luetkenhaus sees photographs of the offender as another advantage over the current policy.

"Without photos, you could be sitting next to someone at a restaurant and not know they were a sexual offender," he said. "That's the benefit of having more than names and addresses."

Luetkenhaus and Marsha Richardson, an American Civil Liberties Union representative, testified on this bill in a House Committee hearing Wednesday.

Internet access to sex offenders presents some new problems and many of the same problems that occurred when the list was first made public.

Increased access provided for in the bill has drawn some criticism.

"Putting this information on the Internet is more problematic than before, because it can be so broadly accessed," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.

Another new problem is the threat of computer tampering.

"Hackers can get into the system and enter innocent peoples names out of fun or malice," Richardson said.

Accuracy has been a long standing problem with the list.

The law puts the burden of registering on the offender. It is a self report policy that leaves room for inaccuracies. Sex offenders can simply not register, give a wrong address, or not update their address if they move.

The sherrif's department does not monitor the list for inaccuracies.

"There is no one assigned to check the list," said Lt. Andy Anderson at the Boone County Sheriff's Department. "From time to time we get tips that an offender is not where he is registered to be and we always look into those reports."

Requiring sex offenders who have been rehabilitated to register and have their names released to the public, denies their right to due process, Jacobs said.

Luetkenhaus doesn't believe a significant number of sex offenders are rehabilitated. "The rehabilitation rate for sex offenders is something like 5 percent," he said.

The ACLU and Columbia Police fear publishing the list on the internet may also increase acts of vigilantism.

"There is always that possibility, it's an emotional type of crime," said Columbia Police Capt. Eric Meyer. "You would think there would be an increased risk of violence."

May, who sponsored the bill making the sex offender list public in 1997, said he is not familiar with any acts of violence inspired by the list in Missouri.

Anderson is opposed to putting the list on the Internet because the list would include crimes that are not as offensive, such as statutory rape.

"If someone was 16 and had consensual sex, it was a crime, and those people shouldn't be lumped together with 40-year-old men who stalk seven-year-old girls on playgrounds," he said.

Despite objections, Leutkenhaus told the committee he's putting children first with House Bill 106.

"The public interest is of higher interest than the rights of sexual preditors," he said.