LINCOLN COUNTY, MO. - It’s the one issue in Jefferson City that State Representative Randy Pietzman says nobody likes to talk about.
“This is not a popular topic to talk about if you’re just trying to get re-elected,” he said.
But that’s not going to stop him from tackling it head on because he says it concerns the safety of every Missouri child.
“We need to change something. We need to do something to curb this problem,” he said.
And it’s especially relevant for Lincoln County, where the Republican is running unopposed for his second term this November.
The rural county, about an hour to the northwest of St. Louis, has a disproportionately high number of sex offenders and sex crimes against children.
“If you compare us with other counties in the surrounding area, per capita, we have substantially more sex offenders,” said Detective Sean Flynn with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.
“There’s something attracting them here,” Pietzman said.
But whatever the reason for the unwanted popularity, it’s having an impact on multiple levels.
“It seems these crimes are impacting people across the socioeconomic spectrum,” Flynn said.
Five on Your Side first exposed this problem last fall.
We discovered at the time that one in about 300 people in the county were on the state’s mandatory sex offender registry. Some were convicted in other states and relocated to Missouri.
One third of the total case load at the sheriff’s office was also made up of various sex crimes, including incest.
Now, fast forward to this year.
“It’s impacted the department in a way that my time is monopolized by this. Really, we’re at the point where we need more people to investigate,” Flynn said.
And some in law enforcement go a step further to say the situation might be beyond repair.
Captain Michael Merkel with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said, “I don’t think stopping it is an option. I think slowing it down is something we could do.”
One way of going about that, he said, is to strengthen the penalties statewide for what’s considered to be some of the most heinous crimes imaginable.
“It’s not acceptable that somebody can pass a bad check and be punished more harshly than someone who has victimized a child,” Merkel said.
Capt. Merkel also suggests improving their ability to investigate child sex crimes. Right now, detectives in Missouri can only interview juvenile victims if their parents give permission.
And the problem?
“What we run into is we have a parent or family member who’s a suspect. And they’re the only ones who can authorize the interview,” Merkel explained.
It’s a loophole in state law that Rep. Pietzman said could help his county, and the state, if it was closed.
“We’re talking about our kids. If the punishment doesn’t match the crime, then it’s going to keep continuing,” he said.
That’s why, following our initial report, Pietzman is working on a number of reforms, including one that would make the death penalty a possible punishment for repeat offenders.
“That seems cruel when you think about it," he said, "but you got to think about what these guys have done. We’re talking about grown men having sex with kids as young as 3- or 4-years-old.”
There are several cases and states that have pushed for similar measures, but capital punishment in America right now is almost exclusively reserved for the crime of murder.
Pietzman said at the very least, he hopes to start a conversation in the legislature that some in law enforcement say is long overdue.
In fact, Missouri has a number of new sex crime laws that are set to go on the books in January. Pietzman would also like to see victims have more say in any plea deal offered to their offenders.
“Any legislation that harshens penalties against those types of offenders, I’m all for,” Merkel said.