With Walsh Act, State Interpretations Play Big Role


I spent some time looking at the regulations on sex offender registries contained within the Adam Walsh Act, specifically those that pertain to youth who are adjudicated for sex offenses. If a state does not pass legislation that puts them in compliance with the act by 2009, it faces a 10 percent cut to its federal law enforcement assistance grants (commonly known as Byrne grants).

There has been growing concern that youth who land in court for adolescent indiscretions will suffer the same stigma as offenders with serious sexual behavior disorders, the Seattle Post-Intelligence reported in this article in June. And despite some assumptions to the contrary, says the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, the evidence shows most juvenile sex offenders do not commit a second sexual offense.

Looking at the guidelines, it seems like it really comes down to how states decide to enforce the regulations. There is a big difference between what states could do, and what the feds require them to do.

Here is what the law specifies: For any juvenile who is 14 or over, states must register the youth if he has been adjudicated for sexual acts (oral, genital or anal) that involve aggravated sexual abuse.

(The use of 14 as a benchmark has already been tossed out by a Nevada judge, who ruled that there was no rational basis for subjecting over-14 youth to the list and not subjecting the under-14 population. But, so far, that ruling only applies to Nevada.)

It's hardly a perfect threshold if the intention is to include offenders who are likely to act again, says University of Toronto Professor Howard Barnabee, who edited The Juvenile Sex Offender (most recent version released in 2005).

"Violence in previous offenses is not predictive of future offending," he says, "and I don't know any data that say drugging is a predictor of future offenses." More likely to predict another sex offense, he says: anti-social behavior, and a history of other delinquent acts.

Still, youth over-14 who commit the most serious offenses would include only a small portion of the total juvenile sex offender population. But, the guidelines state, that's only the minimum standard. This does "not constrain jurisdictions from requiring registration by additional individuals - e.g., more broadly defined categories of juveniles adjudicated delinquent for sex offenses - if they are so inclined."

Once a person lands on the registry, based on federal guidelines, he remains there for a minimum of 15 years; sex offenses involving aggravated sex abuse, minors, or both, would result in 25 years or a lifetime on the sex offender registry.

To illustrate the difference between the minimum federal requirements and what could be allowed, start with this story out of Tennessee. Grant Anthony Friese, who is now 28, raped three women at knifepoint in 2006 and 2007. When he was living in another state, Friese was convicted of molesting a 6-year-old when he was 14, which would almost certainly count as a must-register under the federal minimum standards.

But because he was a juvenile when he committed the offense, and Tennessee does not include juvenile offenders on its registry, the state did not register him when he moved there in 2005.

It's likely this case will push Tennessee to pass legislation that brings juvenile registration in line with the Walsh minimum standards. And in this case, the state would clearly have been better off knowing the work and home addresses of a registered sex offender who worked in the same neighborhood in which the rapes occurred.

But let's say this case pushes Tennessee to go past minimum standards, and require all juvenile sex offenders up to age 18, to register. Now the same registry that includes Friese will (hypothetically) include a 13-year-old who was adjudicated for having sex with his 12-year-old neighbor, who subsequently receives treatment and never offends again.

And because the neighbor was 12, the 13-year-old could be considered a Tier III offender, meaning he is on the sex offender registry for life.

Under federal requirements, that youth's name never touches a registry.