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Down to the Wire: As the deadline approaches to comply with federal rules on sex offenders, some states are saying “no thanks.”

May 2011:

“Our system has been developed, refined and reworked over the course of more than a decade and a half.” REPRESENTATIVE PAT COLLOTON, KANSAS

While some states scramble to comply with portions of the federal sex offender registration law by its July deadline, others think the law’s rewards are just not worth the costs. The new requirements are extensive. The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA)—a portion of the Adam Walsh Act that passed in 2006—expands the categories of offenders that states and tribes must register to include juveniles who commit certain serious crimes and some adult offenders convicted before the law was enacted. Some consider the amount and kind of information that states must now collect, regularly verify and share as onerous.

The legislation sets requirements for which offenses and offenders must be classified, lengthens how long they must stay registered, adds a requirement for periodic appearances by offenders for verification, and sets the penalties states must impose on those who fail to register. States that don’t meet what the U.S. Department of Justice terms “substantial implementation” will lose 10 percent of their Byrne law enforcement assistance grants.

Some policymakers, however, question the value of all these requirements. State sex
offender registries already contain names, addresses, photos, vehicle, job and other identifying information on hundreds of thousands of convicted sex offenders. If public safety is the goal of maintaining all these public registries, it’s not clear if all the information makes communities safer or if the most dangerous predators become lost among a growing swell of electronic information.

State lawmakers have enacted some 250 bills related to SORNA since 2007, but to date only Delaware, Florida, Ohio, South Dakota and two tribes have met “substanial implementation” standards. Although it’s likely more states will comply by the July deadline, lawmakers in other states have studied SORNA and believe their current sex offender registration policies and processes best address the needs in their states.

“Our system has been developed, refined and reworked over the course of more than a decade and a half,” Representative Pat Colloton of Kansas told members of a U.S. House subcommittee in February. “Legislative committees like mine have worked exhaustively with researchers, public safety professionals and community members to make our laws respond to the specific and unique needs of Kansas.” Colloton also points out that states have not really had several years to implement the SORNA rules because final, supplemental federal guidelines were not issued until earlier this year.

A recent study by the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee found the loss of 10 percent of federal justice funding is an inadequate incentive to comply with SORNA. State officials estimated it would cost $38.7 million to comply, but the state would lose only about $1.4 million in Byrne funds if it refused. The costs would come from adding more offenders to the registry, some for longer periods of time, and needing more law enforcement personnel to verify information at required, frequent intervals.

Even so, the Senate recommendation in Texas not to comply was based on public safety,
not cost. Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, says the federal mandates are no better than Texas’ laws that restrict parole and commit or supervise offenders based on their dangerousness.

“No one needs to show Texas the way to deal with sex offenders,” he says.

For the remainder of this paper: by Donna Lyons who directs National Conference of State Legislature’s Criminal Justice program.

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