Standoff Over Sex Offenders


Four years after passage of the federal law creating a national sex offender registry, only a few states have complied.

It starts with the names: Jacob Wetterling, age 11; Megan Kanka, 7; Adam Walsh, 6. All were abducted, the latter two by men with histories of sex offenses.

Wetterling is still missing 21 years later; Kanka and Walsh were found murdered. Their tragic stories propelled enactment of federal laws that aim to prevent future sexual assaults against children.

Congress' 1994 passage of the Jacob Wetterling Act mandated the creation of state sex offender registries that would be accessible to law enforcement agencies. Two years later, legislators enacted Megan's Law, requiring states to share those same registries with the public.

Then in 2006, convinced that variation among state registries was allowing offenders to slip across state lines undetected, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act. It required greater uniformity in state registries and set up a national registry linking them–the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website, named for a 22-year-old woman raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender in 2003.

This much seems clear: the public is using the new national registry. For the first time, individuals can search all 50 state registries simultaneously. The site gets 17,000 visits a day, up from 13,000 daily last year.

But despite the registry's popularity, states have been in near open revolt over the rules that accompanied its creation. National associations that represent state interests, such as the National Governors Association, have called for changes in those regulations or amendments to the law itself.

The issues at stake transcend the red-blue divide–it's foremost a classic battle over states' rights. “This law created a one-size-fits all approach to classifying, registering and, in some circumstances, sentencing sex offenders,” reads a policy statement by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which advocates on behalf of state lawmakers. “The provisions of the Adam Walsh Act were crafted without state input or consideration of current state practices.”

And given the condition of most state budgets, the timing couldn't be worse. “I think all states are concerned about the fiscal impact,” says Elizabeth Pyke of the National Criminal Justice Association, which represents state governments on crime issues. “State budgets are pinched. . . . A large new mandate is the last thing they can take on right now.”

Only 3 States in Compliance

To date, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has determined that only three states have satisfied the law's requirements: Ohio, Delaware and Florida. Under the statute, states that don't comply are penalized. The remaining 47 must do so by July 2011 or face a 10 percent cut in their federal crime prevention funds.

The Walsh Act, for example, requires states to classify an offender's level of risk–and therefore how much time they spend on the registry–based on their offense. But up to 24 states base offenders' risk not on their offense but on professionally conducted risk assessments, according to Alisa Klein of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, an Oregon-based organization of professionals who treat sex offenders, often using such assessments.

These assessments consider a range of factors to develop an overall evaluation of a specific offender's risk. “Sex offenders differ greatly . . .,” Bob Schilling, a police detective in Seattle's Sex and Kidnapping Offender Department, told a U.S. House subcommittee last spring. “Assigning sex offender tiers based on crime of conviction tells us very little about who this sex offender is and what his or her risk for re-offense may be.”

Another of the law's provisions may have onerous budget and legal implications. To ensure that state registries capture information on past offenders, police must conduct background checks on new arrestees to see if they have ever committed a sex offense–even if the offense occurred prior to the new law's passage. In responses to a survey by the Council of State Governments last year, 20 states said that provision will result in expensive lawsuits and force them to hire more staff to do background checks.

Many states also object to a regulation that they include on their public registries juveniles as young as 14 who commit serious sex offenses. In part, that's because state juvenile justice systems are set up to rehabilitate rather than punish–an idea that runs counter to placing sex offender teens on a registry.

And youthful offenders do not pose the same risks–recidivism rates for juvenile sex offenders are considerably lower than for other offenders, according to David Finkelhor, who directs the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center.

New Rules for Juvenile Offenders

The DOJ is trying to address that issue. On May 14, it proposed new rules permitting states to exempt those under 18 from their public registries. (States still will be required to put the most serious juvenile offenders on registries that are accessible by law enforcement.)

It's unclear whether that change will be enough to get most states to sign on. Linda Baldwin, who directs the DOJ unit that oversees the Adam Walsh Act, says that “a number” of states have submitted compliance packages, though she declined to say how many.

But Andrew Harris, a University of Massachusetts researcher who has surveyed states about their plans to comply, says the “vast majority” are not moving toward compliance. “I think what states are hoping for at this point is that there might be some Congressional movement on the issue in the next year and that they might get some modifications to the law,” he says. (Two state attorneys general who have expressed objections to the law did not return calls for this story about their state's plans.)

If Congress doesn't amend the law, states will continue managing their registries their own way–but with less federal money than before. And they'll continue to hear from parents of some of the most prominent victims, who have formed the Surviving Parents Coalition to lobby for stronger child protection legislation. One of them is Linda Walker, mother of the 2003 rape and murder victim Dru Sjodin. She says that by not complying with the Adam Walsh Act, states are “playing Russian Roulette with our children.”

That's the kind of sentiment that can make governors and state legislators run for political cover. As a result, some may try to thread the needle: Harris knows of states that haven't substantially changed their laws to accord with the Walsh Act but are applying for DOJ approval anyway. Harris says their message to the federal government is, “Look, this is what we're doing. . .Either approve it or don't.”

Steve Yoder is a freelance journalist based in Woodstock, New York.

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