Ridgeway Murder Shows Problems with Sex Offender Tracking Laws

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PLATTE CITY, Mo. -- The murder of 10-year-old Colorado girl Jessica Ridgeway has focused new attention on a federal law that requires states to register and track sex offenders, but which nearly three-dozen states have failed to join.

The 6-year-old federal law was supposed to make it easier for law enforcement to track sex offenders across the nation. But only 10 states currently meet the federal standards. Both Kansas and Missouri are on that short list of states currently complying with federal law.

But in Missouri, some lawmakers have said obeying the federal rules are too expensive and onerous.

"I think what a lot of states have done is chosen to say, 'Look, we're going to follow our own laws and we're not going to worry too much about what the federal government has said,'" said Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd.

Jackson County Sheriff deputies went door-to-door earlier this year checking to make sure the addresses listed by registered sex offenders were accurate. It's a manpower-intensive operation that required the sheriff to ask other police agencies to help out, removing officers from other duties. It's an example of why some say federal sex offender requirements are too costly.

"At the end of the day I think what folks need to know and be assured of is that we have the right people on the sex offender registry," said Zahnd. "And that law enforcement is tracking those folks and making sure they are registered."

Some lawmakers in Missouri say because of federal requirements, the state sex offender list has swelled to more than 12,000 names. Those who want to break away from the federal system say there may be hundreds who do not deserve to be on the list and can't get jobs as a result.

In Kansas, there also has been talk of backing out of the federal sex offender system. But in Johnson County, the sheriff's department says it's committed to continuing to track sex offenders.

"The only thing I can really speak to is how important it is for us," said Deputy Tom Erickson of the Johnson County Sheriff's office. "And we've taken that stance for many, many years that it's very important for us to let our neighbors know what's happening in their neighborhood. That duty wholly relies on us. We take it very serious."

Missouri has already removed so-called Romeo-and-Juliet cases from the sex offender registry. Zahnd says those who had inappropriate sexual relationships as teens probably don't pose a risk to society.

The Jackson County Sheriff's department says it already is planning another big sex offender sweep at the end of the month, on Halloween.

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