ST. LOUIS (AP) — Police don't know the whereabouts of nearly 1,300 registered sex offenders in Missouri, including hundreds who fall into the most dangerous category, according to a state audit released Monday.
Missouri law requires convicted sex offenders to register their names, addresses and other information with their county law enforcement, most often the sheriff's department. The Missouri State Highway Patrol maintains a publicly available database. Offenders must keep their information up-to-date and notify law enforcement when they move.
The audit released by state Auditor Nicole Galloway says 1,259 sex offenders are unaccounted for — about 8 percent of the nearly 16,000 registered sex offenders in Missouri — and it blames inadequate enforcement of the registration requirement at the local level. In 14 counties and the city of St. Louis, the whereabouts of more than 10 percent of sex offenders is unknown.
Galloway said the findings are "disturbing and alarming."
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"As it stands the sex offender registry really provides a false sense of security," Galloway said at a news conference in St. Louis.
Galloway said the audit did not compare compliance rates in Missouri with other states, nor did it examine if non-compliant sex offenders committed additional crimes.
However, other states have had similar problems with keeping up with sex offenders. A state analysis in August found that Wisconsin didn't have current information on 2,735 offenders. A 2017 audit in Massachusetts found no address on file for nearly 1,800 of the state's more than 13,000 registered sex offenders.
By contrast, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said in August that the statewide compliance rate for registered sex offenders there was 98.8 percent — only 45 of 3,695 South Dakota sex offenders were identified to be in non-compliance.
Missouri's registration requirement law took effect in 1995 and was updated this year to classify sex offenders into three tiers. The most dangerous sex offenders are listed in Tier III for offenses that include rape, sodomy or first- or second-degree child molestation. Those offenders must register with local police every 90 days for the rest of their lives.
Galloway said the audit found that at least 794 of the non-compliant offenders met the criteria for Tier III. She singled out St. Louis, where 197 of the 244 unaccounted for sex offenders fall into the most dangerous category.
The audit showed the problem persists in places large and small. Stoddard County in rural southeast Missouri had the highest rate of unaccounted for sex offenders, 25.2 percent, followed by Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, at 20.7 percent. Butler County, also in southeast Missouri, was third-worst at 20 percent, followed by St. Louis city at 19.3 percent.
Phone and email messages seeking comment from officials in St. Louis and the counties with the highest rates of unaccounted for offenders were not immediately returned. But Galloway said law enforcement officials often cite a lack of resources. She acknowledged that understaffed police agencies face an uphill battle in maintaining the registry. "But this is critically important," she said.
Failure to comply with registration requirements is a felony. The audit found that less than 10 percent of noncompliant offenders had an active arrest warrant against them.
In addition to urging strong control at the local level, the audit cites a need for the highway patrol to improve procedures for maintaining the database and for helping local police enforce registration requirements. A highway patrol spokesman did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Galloway also encouraged the Legislature to strengthen the state law to require background checks for school volunteers, and to allow her office to access all court records.
A spokeswoman for Galloway said the audit was the first of the state's sex offender registry in a decade and Galloway felt it was time for another.