Sunday, April 26, 2009

Maryland lawmakers are at odds over how to keep track of hundreds of juvenile sex offenders even though a 3-year-old federal law requires that they be registered in a national database.

The statute, called the Adam Walsh Act after the slain son of “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh, establishes a national online registry for both juvenile and adult sex offenders and organizes them into three categories, according to the severity of their crime.

Tier-one offenders must update their whereabouts every year for 15 years, while tier-two offenders must do so every six months for 25 years. Third-tier offenders are required to check in every three months for the rest of their lives.

The act was signed into law by President Bush in 2006, and states have until July of this year to become compliant or face cuts in federal funding. To date, no state has become fully compliant. Last month, Maryland joined 30 other states in applying for a one-year extension.

State lawmakers say they have encountered pitfalls because the law runs contrary to the state’s legal philosophy of protecting the records of juvenile offenders from public view.

“It puts the state in a difficult bind,” said Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., Cecil Republican, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s easy just to say, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key,’ but there is a matter of balancing of our own public policies and making sure all these individuals are listed, and sometimes that’s easier said than done.”

So far, Maryland has revised its existing registry laws so offenders must provide a copy of their driver’s license, e-mail address, former names, nicknames and computer log-in or screen names.

Legislation also was passed in April to ensure certain juvenile offenders are registered.

According to a task force set up in 2005 by the state Department of Juvenile Services, in 2004 there were 195 juvenile sex offenders in residential placements in Maryland, and 275 offenders were living at home and being treated in their communities.

Delegate Jill P. Carter, Baltimore Democrat and a defense lawyer, said it was unfair for a juvenile to be faced with the “humiliation” of the sex-offender label.

“I’m not inclined to support sweeping up children into this mandate. A lot of times juvenile offenders are victims of abuse as well, and sometimes charges are overblown. I think it’s unfair,” she said.

Lawmakers are also concerned with the retroactive application of the act, saying that many offenders could be stigmatized for offenses committed decades earlier.

“Sometimes the point is lost when you try to group everyone all in the same category. It’s definitely a balancing act,” Mr. Smigiel said.

Parole and probation agents agree with the tougher restrictions, however, even when it comes to juveniles, and they do not see why the state has been slow to comply with the act.

“It’s a travesty that we haven’t gotten our act together on this,” said Rai Douglass, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, Local 3661, which represents parole and probation agents in Maryland. “Juveniles or not, people have a right to know if a violent sex offender lives next door.”

Maryland has not been alone in its static posture. Currently, no state has become fully compliant, while only a few, including Ohio, Florida, Delaware, Louisiana and Oklahoma, have adopted the act’s key provisions.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter to the Justice Department that most states could not become compliant because of “unforeseen difficulties,” such as the fact the department’s final guidelines were not issued until June 2008.

“A situation where all states are unable to comply … and suffer penalties as a result does not help the vital goals of the act,” Mr. Leahy said.

Many states are also hesitant to commit to legislation as numerous legal challenges to the act have crept up in the last year.

In September, U.S. District Judge James Mahan ruled that Nevada’s adoption of the act was unconstitutional because it violated due process, and the state has yet to consider legislation related to the statute since.

Last month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Florida, ruled that the act’s registration requirement was constitutional because it fell under the Commerce Clause powers of the U.S. Congress.

On April 20, the 9th District Court of Appeals also upheld the law as applied retroactively to sex offenders in the state.

States that are not compliant face a 10 percent reduction in a federal funding grant for state law enforcement agencies, which in the case of Maryland amounts to about $2 million.

State officials say losing the funds would be a critical blow for agencies already suffering from cutbacks owing to the state’s $2 billion budget shortfall.

“This is a challenge,” said Kristen Mahoney, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Crime Control and Prevention. “It’s an important grant and every penny counts, especially now.”

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