Accusations fly over Missouri’s sexual offender laws as election nears

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

By: Virginia Young

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JEFFERSON CITY   •   Sex offender laws have become the latest punching bag in this year’s political races, a development that at least one children’s advocate finds troubling.

The latest candidate to be targeted is Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, who is seeking a state Senate seat in Tuesday’s election. Her opponent, Republican Jay Ashcroft, is airing ads that accuse Schupp of siding with “dangerous predators instead of victims, time and time again.”

Schupp has responded with an ad that says Ashcroft is distorting her record and that the allegations are “untrue” and “shameful.”

Emily van Schenkhof is deputy director of Missouri Kids First, a group that lobbies for laws that protect children. She worked closely with Republicans and Democrats on a comprehensive overhaul of the criminal code and is considered a respected voice on children’s issues in the Capitol.

Van Schenkhof said ads portraying isolated votes as favoring predators are “going to make it harder for us to do thoughtful policy work on sex offenders, because people aren’t going to want to get involved in these conversations.

“Public policy related to sex offenders is very complex, and there’s a lot of nuance to it,” she said.

Van Schenkhof stressed that the organization doesn’t take sides in elections.

But she said Schupp “has a very excellent record on protecting children. She served on the Children’s Trust Fund board, and I’ve met few people who have the kind of commitment she has to Missouri’s children.”

Not that Schupp and van Schenkhof have always agreed.

Van Schenkhof lobbied for legislators to place Constitutional Amendment 2 on Tuesday’s statewide ballot. It would allow juries hearing child sex abuse cases to hear evidence of a defendant’s prior criminal acts, whether or not the defendant was charged with those offenses.

Supporters, including the state’s prosecuting attorneys, said Missouri has been hobbled in prosecuting child sex offenders since a Missouri Supreme Court ruling banned such evidence.

Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that allowing evidence from cases where someone was never convicted presumes suspects are guilty instead of innocent.

Schupp was among 23 Democrats and three Republicans who voted “no” when the House decided in May 2013 to put it on the ballot. The House vote was 131-26. The Senate vote was 30-2.

Ashcroft, a lawyer, said in a news release that in opposing the amendment, Schupp chose to “protect a loophole that makes it harder to prosecute sexual predators….”

Van Schenkhof said that while she strongly favors the amendment, she understood opponents’ concerns.

“I think the good of this far outweighs the potential negative consequences…but I don’t think people who voted against putting it on the ballot are people who don’t care about children,” she said.

Ashcroft contends that over the last six years, Schupp voted for amendments or substitute bills that would have allowed sex offenders to coach youth sports, care for seniors and be removed from the sex offender registry.

Schupp denies those accusations, citing different votes that she said protect children in such cases.

Schupp is not the only Democrat being linked to legislation affecting sex offenders as Election Day nears. The Missouri Republican Party has circulated mailers alleging that Rep. T.J. McKenna of Festus voted for a bill that weakened the state’s lifetime sexual offender registry.

In fact, that 96-page bill was sponsored by a Republican, approved by a Republican-controlled committee, placed on the House debate calendar by a Republican House speaker and favored by 79 Republicans in a floor vote.

Asked about the mailer, House Majority Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said: “I haven’t seen it.”

Diehl said he doesn’t sign off on campaign tactics used by the House Republican Campaign Committee, even though he is its principal fundraiser.

“I don’t make any decisions as to what ads they run. I raise money for the organization.”

But Diehl indicated turnabout may be fair play, saying that the anti-McKenna mailer “sounds like the same mailer that Democrats ran against our members” in 2012.

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