States struggle to comply with sex offender database

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.

There are about 6,000 registered sex offenders in Maryland, which officials said was not ready for the deadline.

Maryland stands to lose about $1.9 million in Byrne funding in fiscal 2011 if found in noncompliance. The state requires only those juveniles convicted as adults to register. Those tried in the juvenile court system would have to be added. Maryland has been unable to pass compliance legislation regarding juvenile registration and retroactivity issues.

“It’s not as easy as, ‘We’d like to do this, and we’re going to do it,’ ” said Dave Wolinski, of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “We’ve got people on both sides of the fence saying they have different feelings about juvenile registration and registration terms.”

Allison Turkel, policy adviser for the Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking Office, which was created from the Walsh Act, said the law aims to classify offenders using a three-tiered system based on the severity of the offense for which they were convicted.

“[The law] sets a floor, not a ceiling, for registration,” Ms. Turkel said.

The law also strengthens child pornography protections, requires violent sex offenders to register with local authorities and increases communication among states to know when an offender moves across state lines.

However, some critics have argued the law entraps homeless offenders, who are without a permanent residency. As long as offenders provide information about where they “habitually live,” they are within the law.

As of May 29, the District had 869 registered offenders, but only 818 of those were listed online in June. The District breaks down offenders into three classes: A, B and C under the Sex Offender Registry Act of 1999, which authorizes the Metropolitan Police Department to release offender information to the public. The online list does not include class C offenders, which would change under the law.

However, Sgt. Robert Panizari, unit supervisor for the department’s Sex Offender Registry Unit, said the city is close to meeting federal law but that could change as the law adapts.

“Congress is going to go back and look at [the act],” Mr. Panizari said. “We do have some more work to do, and now we have time on that.”

Virginia had 15,893 registered sex offenders as of June 30. The state’s crime commission is studying Byrne funding and compliance to the act because of budgetary issues and anticipating implementation costs. Virginia would lose an estimated $400,000 to $600,000 in funding if found in noncompliance, based on fiscal 2009 numbers. The state has pending legislation also regarding juvenile registration and retroactivity that would make it unable to comply with federal guidelines.

Although the state has not fully complied with the act, measures have been taken to require offenders to provide information about themselves online, with increased punishments for failing to register as a class 6 felony. Much of this legislation has failed to get the support needed to pass, while others float through legislative limbo.

Dave Spencer, who was released from prison in 2004 after serving 4 1/2 years for a third-degree sexual abuse conviction in Iowa, said the federal government needs to stay out of what should be a state’s business in deciding its own sex offender laws. Under the act, Spencer is considered at least a tier 2 offender. The two-time offender could still be held accountable for his first conviction in the late 1980s because of unlimited retroactivity.

“[States] should not allow themselves to be federalized in a way that trashes the Constitution,” Spencer said. “There has to be a more realistic and productive way to solve the sex abuse problem. … The consequences for noncompliance don’t make any real sense. The feds are saying, in effect, if you don’t comply with this mandate, we are going to make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to fight crime in your state at all.”

Steve Roddel of Family Watchdog LLC said the federal government needs to do more to protect communities from sex offenders.

Mr. Roddel is president of the company, which is a free national Internet search for registered offenders that he created after the 2005 Jessica Lunsford case. The site averages 5 million visitors per month.

“It’s politics. States believe they have the right to decide,” Mr. Roddel said. “Now, they’ll all tell you, ‘We’re working to do our best to balance privacy rights with the public safety requirements that we have.’ … People are not looking for strangers, they’re looking for people they know. Having access to that information is literally lifesaving.”

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