Including Juveniles Is a Barrier on Walsh Act Compliance

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Nearly half of the states who have not met federal requirements for their sex offender registries have a problem with the mandate that registries include juveniles.

A document published as part of Justice Department testimony in a hearing on the Adam Walsh Act of 2006 last week indicates 21 states cite “juvenile requirements” as a barrier to complying with the act, which among other things requires states to establish a sex offender registry that connects with a national registry.

That aspect of the law, called the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), sets minimum requirements for who to include on the registry and how long to include them. SORNA mandates that certain juvenile sex offenders be included, although a supplemental guideline issued last month by the Justice Department permits states to keep juvenile registrants on a non-public list.

“Significant clarifications were made” in the guidelines that “make compliance very, very possible,” said Patricia Colloton, a state representative from Kansas, in her testimony to the House Committee on the Judiciary on Feb. 15.

This is particularly true for states where concerns center on juveniles, she said. “Both sides of the aisle” oppose inclusion of most juveniles because they’re “less likely to re-offend.”

July 10 is the deadline to comply with the Walsh Act or incur a 10 percent cut to the state’s Justice Assistance Grant for state and local law enforcement. Florida, Delaware, Ohio and South Dakota are the only states that are currently compliant with the law.

The hearing revealed that nobody expects the majority of states to be substantially compliant by the deadline this summer, and that some may not be ready for another two years, if they comply at all.

The Justice Department is “reasonably confident” that between 10 and 15 states will comply with the Walsh Act by the July deadline, said Dawn Doran, deputy director of the Justice Department’s Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) Office. The remaining 25 to 30 states “may or may not” meet the deadline.

“I’m not pleased with the rate of compliance,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Ohio). “I intend to see it is fully implemented.”

Sensenbrenner asked Colloton how long she thought most states would need to comply.

“Two more years,” Colloton said, citing three reasons: the initial SORNA regulations were not published until 2008, that new guidelines had been issued one month ago and a number of state legislatures meet for a short period each year.

Sensenbrenner asked another witness – Ernie Allen, CEO of the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children – what he thought of the deadline.

“It’s a balancing act here,” Allen said. “I certainly agree [with Colloton] that effectively, states have only have had three years to come into compliance.”

But, Allen said, “I fear if [a 2-year extension] is provided, states will just delay. I don’t think that’s unheard of.”

Sensenbrenner hinted that he may personally come down on the side of granting extensions based on direct appeals from states, though not for two more years.

“I believe in deadlines,” he said. “Excuses [for extensions] are going to have to be valid. I really don’t think two years is appropriate. I have a feeling people won’t get worried about this until 2013.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who philosophically opposed the act when it was originally proposed, expressed questions as to whether the act was something states would ever accept.

“SORNA is proving unworkable,” Scott said. “Even among the few states with SORNA compliance, there are problems.”

The July deadline is the third in the slow move toward Walsh Act compliance. All states were granted a blanket extension by Attorney General Eric Holder in July of 2009. States were allowed to ask individually for extensions in 2010, and all but the four compliant states received one.

Even this year’s deadline is not completely firm. A state can apply to receive the funds it would lose, but only if the money is used for purposes related to becoming Walsh Act compliant.

Justice has given grants to 44 states to assist them in implementing the Walsh Act. Last month, on the heels of the new supplemental guidelines, the department hosted a workshop on the act in Washington.