Congress found it easy enough to pass guidelines for a national Internet database of sex offenders. Individual states are finding it far more difficult to comply with those guidelines.
Not a single state was ready to meet a deadline set for this month, prompting Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to grant an extension. With a year’s reprieve, states are now wrestling with what they can and will do to satisfy the guidelines when they take effect in July 2010.
States that fail to comply will lose a portion of their annual federal justice grant, but California and Vermont are considering whether that would cost them less than implementing the program.
Maryland and other states will have to enact new laws, but some legislators oppose aspects of the federal guidelines involving the registration of juveniles and unlimited retroactivity. Virginia has legislation pending that would make it impossible to comply. D.C. officials say they are close to compliance but are awaiting further adjustments by Congress.
Under the guidelines created by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, states and other jurisdictions must feed a national Internet database with information about where the nation’s estimated 674,000 registered sex offenders live and work. A jurisdiction that fails to do so faces the mandatory 10 percent of its Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, which supports crime control and prevention and funds victim programs as well as public defenders.
All juvenile offenders, whether they were tried in adult or juvenile court, will have to be registered under the law. The U.S. attorney general will have the authority to apply the law retroactively, meaning it may be applied to those who have served their time.
Offenders would be classified in three tiers. Tier 3 offenders would be required to update their whereabouts every three months with lifetime registration requirements; tier 2 would update every six months with 25 years of registration; and tier 1 offenders would update every year for 15 years.
While some states are having problems with individual issues involving the new guidelines, others see an overall picture of dollars and cents. These states may ignore the guidelines entirely because implementation is too costly.
The California Sex Offender Management Board is urging the state not to comply with the act, which will involve “substantial and unreimbursed costs.” To offset the $2.1 million that would be lost in federal funding, the agency suggests using other resources to ensure local law enforcement and other programs are not affected. The board says the state’s current registry is sufficient.
Vermont has only one person updating its registry. Officials estimate the costs to implement the law would run into millions of dollars for new technology and staffing.
“It would require a lot more money than we would actually be losing,” said Sheri Englert, the state’s sex offender registry coordinator.
Vermont would lose about $500,000 for failing to comply.
With a little more than 2,400 registered sex offenders in Vermont, and about 400 of those online, it can get overwhelming for jurisdictions to keep track of offenders and for offenders to understand the law, Ms. Englert added.
“Most of the time, it’s a generalization, they’re going to fail from the onset,” she said. “Rather than throw laws at them that are going to further frustrate them, forcing them to go under the radar, we need consistency across the board for every state. That’s where most issues come up, [offenders who move] don’t understand rules from the state they’ve just left.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 674,000 people are registered as sex offenders in the U.S. But these numbers are constantly fluctuating as offenders move to new locations, die or are taken off the registry because their terms expire.