The sex offender next door: 1,300 missing Missouri criminals must be found quickly

Jackson County remains at the center of a scandalous problem with unregistered sex offenders in Missouri.

According to an audit released Monday, 439 sex criminals in Jackson County have failed to register as required by law — more than 20 percent of all the known sex offenders in the county. Statewide, roughly 1,300 sex offenders have failed to register, and “their locations are unknown,” according to the report.

The problem threatens neighborhoods and public safety. Jackson County officials and the sheriff’s office should commit whatever resources are needed to find local unregistered sex criminals within the next six months.

And the Missouri legislature should identify additional funds to pay for finding noncompliant offenders in every county as soon as possible.

There is no time to waste. According to Monday’s report from Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway, more than half of the missing offenders have failed to register for more than a year. And 800 of them are guilty of the most serious sex crimes — rape, sodomy, child molestation, sexual trafficking, incest and other offenses.

For more than 20 years, Missouri has required those offenders to tell law enforcement officials where they live. They must report every six months — or more frequently, depending on the victim’s age. Any failure to report is a felony.

Yet the state’s law enforcement officials have failed to issue arrest warrants in more than 90 percent of these non-registration cases, the audit found. There were plenty of excuses: other priorities, crowded jails, jurisdictional concerns. None is acceptable.

“When (law enforcement officials) do not obtain arrest warrants for noncompliant sex offenders,” the audit found, “sex offenders ... are able to reside in locations unknown to law enforcement officials and the public, sometimes for several years, with little risk they will be apprehended.”

To his credit, Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte is aware of the problem and has pledged to accelerate enforcement. To date, though, there is little evidence the county has reduced the backlog of missing offender cases.

Forte’s office did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

Galloway made several other statewide recommendations in her audit, including background checks for school volunteers that include the sex offender registry database. That’s a good idea.

Recent changes to state law should reduce the number of offenders who need to register, which will help ensure the worst criminals will get needed attention.

Missourians want to know where sex offenders live. They will be left wondering whether there’s an offender next door if law enforcement officials fail to arrest criminals who flout the registration requirement. Enforcing it must be a top priority here and across the state.