Many states fall short of federal sex-offender law
Oklahoma City • Nearly three dozen states, including Utah, have failed to meet conditions of a 2006 federal law that requires them to join a nationwide program to track sex offenders in order to secure lucrative grants, including five states that have completely given up on the effort because of persistent doubts about how it works and how much it costs.
The states, including some of the nation's largest, stand to lose millions of dollars in grants for law enforcement, but some have concluded that honoring the law would be far more expensive than simply living without the money.
"The requirements would have been a huge expense," said Doris Smith, who oversees grant programs at the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Lawmakers weren't willing to spend that much, even though the state will lose $226,000.
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named after a boy kidnapped from a Florida mall and killed in 1981, was supposed to create a uniform system for registering and tracking sex offenders that would link all 50 states, plus U.S. territories and tribal lands. When President George W. Bush signed it into law, many states quickly realized they would have to overhaul their sex offender registration systems to comply.
Ron Gordon, executive director of Utah's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which administers the state's registry, said Utah expressed concerns about elements of the law before it was signed. While it prompted some changes in Utah policy, the state ultimately elected not to join the national program.
"The tone of our letter to the feds was we've made all the changes that we think are good policy and we firmly believe our system of registering and tracking sex offenders is at least as good as [the program] or better," he said.
In other states, lawmakers determined that the program would cost more to implement than to ignore. Others resisted the burden it placed on offenders, especially certain juveniles who would have to be registered for life. In Arizona, for instance, offenders convicted as juveniles can petition for removal after rehabilitation.
The deadline to comply with the law was July 2011. Thirty-four states have still been unable to meet the full requirements, and five of those have decided they won't even try. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Nebraska and Texas will instead forfeit 10 percent of the law-enforcement funding made available through the Justice Department.
In Texas, a Senate committee conducted two years of hearings and recommended that the state disregard the law, citing concerns about juvenile offenders and other new mandates. The committee's report acknowledged the loss of an estimated $1.4 million. But that figure paled when compared with the cost to implement the changes, which could have exceeded $38 million.
The Arizona Legislature drew a similar conclusion, rejecting the law in 2009 after a committee determined it would cost about $2 million to fulfill all requirements far more than the estimated $146,700 in grants that would be withdrawn.
California, the nation's most populous state, risked losing nearly $800,000 in funding this year, but a 2008 estimate put the cost of complying at $32 million.
The five states that have given up on the program still have the option to reapply for the withheld money. The 29 states that are in partial compliance have asked to have their withheld money released to help them meet conditions of the law.
Richard Kishur, an Oklahoma City counselor who has worked with sex offenders for more than 30 years, said his biggest reservation was that the law categorized offenders by the crime they commit, not the risk they actually pose.
"What we need to do is be rational about it and apply resources to people who are dangerous and quit wasting our money and time on people who aren't dangerous," Kishur said. "The law is making a lot of people's lives miserable because a lot of it should apply to psychopathic murderers instead of people who are situational and opportunistic offenders who aren't real likely to offend."
Proponents of the law had hoped it would ease the risk that states with less-stringent registration would become havens for sex offenders.
Mark Pursley, who managed sex offenders for nearly a decade at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, recalled hearing offenders discuss moving to states with relaxed rules.
"They were very in tune with what requirements were in different states, and they would frequently migrate to other states," said Pursley, who is now retired.
James Womack, a convicted sex offender from Oklahoma who now works for a nonprofit agency that helps recently released felons, said he understands the need for consistent registration rules. But he cautioned that registration alone will not stop them from reoffending.
"It doesn't do anything to stop crime," said Womack, who was convicted in 2005 of indecent liberties with a child and served nearly two years in prison. "A true pedophile, if they're going to offend, they're going to offend, whether or not they live one mile or 10 miles from a school."