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MO Senate approves tougher sex crime penalties

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By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – The Missouri Senate on Tuesday gave initial approval to a measure that would increase penalties for sex offenders, especially those who prey on children.

Sen. Matt Bartle (R-Lee's Summit) sponsored the legislation, which focuses on increasing the minimum prison sentences for certain sex crimes and requires lifetime supervision and electronic monitoring of more sex offenders.

For one, the bill adds the crimes of 'previously committing incest with the victim' and 'endangering a child's welfare in a sexual manner' to those who must be monitored for life.

The bill also adds child kidnapping to the host of crimes for which people are required to serve 85% of their sentence.

In addition, it makes "persistent" sex offenders those with certain previous rape or sodomy convictions serve a life sentence without parole, rather than 30 years as they must now. And certain other offenders would not be eligible for parole, including those convicted of statutory rape or statutory sodomy.

Furthermore, the bill requires those convicted of forcible rape or sodomy to generally serve at least 25 years in prison if the victim was younger than 12; and the bill establishes a presumption in the law that any sex with a child younger than 12 was by force, and in no way consensual.

Sen. Chris Koster (R-Harrisonville), himself a former prosecutor, said prosecutors have concerns with parts of the bill, though he supports it. "The Jessica's Law movement pushes prosecutors toward more extreme positions," he said.

Missouri and many other states are looking at strengthening laws against child sex offenders after last year's death of a Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford, who authorities said was kidnapped and killed by a registered sex offender.

"We've taken a couple of tools out of the toolbox and left them with a crowbar," said Sen. Victor Callahan, (D-Independence).

Bartle said he tried to strike a balance between making laws tougher and tying the hands of prosecutors. If penalties are too severe, he said, the bill could have the opposite of its intent, since people might not report family members or loved ones they suspect are committing sex crimes, or because prosecutors might not get a jury to convict someone knowing that person could be locked up for life.

"The unintended effect of that would be to release sex offenders back into the general population without them facing the punishment they deserve," he said.

The measure also initially required abortion clinics to report to state children's officials if a patient appears to be the victim of statutory rape or, if under 18, the victim of sexual abuse. But the bill was delayed over that provision, with Sen. Joan Bray (D-St. Louis), an abortion rights supporter, trying to change the law to require all mandatory reporters of abuse to report evidence of statutory rape. Anti-abortion advocates feared the change would discourage young pregnant teens from visiting a doctor and receiving prenatal care.

In the end, the Senate agreed to simply require doctors who handle either a birth or an abortion to report evidence of statutory rape.

The sex offender registry also would begin including more crimes, such as sexual contact with a nursing home resident and sexual trafficking of a child, but remove others, such as parental kidnapping. The measure also increases penalties for those who fail to register.

The Senate also adopted an amendment to create a statewide task force to investigate Internet predators, if funding is available, with the Missouri State Highway Patrol providing assistance to local law enforcement as needed.

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