Feds Begin Penalizing States That Haven’t Adopted U.S. Sex Offender Law


Nearly six years after the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was enacted, the U.S. Justice Department is beginning to penalize many of the states that have failed to follow its provisions. The latest count shows that only 15 states are in “substantial” compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) parts of the Adam Walsh law, long after a deadline of last July.

The 2006 law expanded the categories of crimes requiring registration and increased the length and frequency of registration for some adults and juveniles. Many states believe that the federal requirements are too costly and burdensome, deciding that they will give up some U.S. anticrime aid rather than retool their sex offender registries in line with the federal law.

The Crime Report previously noted, for example, that Texas had estimated that it would have to spent nearly $39 million to comply with SORNA but would lose only $1.4 million in federal funds if it didn’t act.

Some states have declined to comply on policy grounds, most commonly disagreeing with the federal requirement that juvenile sex offenders involved in violent crimes be registered for life. Their first opportunity to ask a court to end their registration would not be available until 25 years after they are listed on a registry, a requirement that some states believe is too harsh.

States had been threatened with a 10 percent cut in aid from Washington. In practice, the cuts ordered by Justice Department will not go so deeply. Only federal money going solely to state governments will suffer the 10 percent reduction, not the relatively large amount of U.S. aid destined for local governments.

This was the course urged by the National Criminal Justice Association, representing states and localities, which argues that local programs “should not be penalized because of a state’s policy on sex offender management.” As a result, the potential penalty to most states will be cut roughly in half, depending on how much of the state’s federal aid ends up in local hands.

The only states in compliance with SORNA are Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

All of the remaining 35 states may not suffer a loss of federal funds. If the Justice Department determines that a state is actively attempting to comply with SORNA, its federal aid may continue without interruption. Several more states may comply this year, depending on action by legislatures that may still be in session.

The proportion of federal money that a non-complying state may lose will differ depending on the state’s level of compliance. In some states, federal money that otherwise would have gone to anticrime work not involving sex offenders might be shifted to help the state get into compliance with SORNA. The bottom line is that some anticrime programs around the U.S. now will experience funding cuts if they are located in states that have failed to meet SORNA’s requirements.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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