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Registering Harm: A briefing book on the Adam Walsh Act

January 9, 2009

Justice Policy Institute- Registering Harm: A briefing book on the Adam Walsh Act

Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law that requires states to include children as young as age 14 on registries — often for the rest of their lives — in an attempt to protect our children from sexual violence. But the Adam Walsh Act won’t keep our children safe. Instead, this law will consume valuable law enforcement resources, needlessly target children and families, and undermine the very purpose of the juvenile justice system. Thankfully, states can opt out of compliance with this law, and make smart investments in programs and policies that will actually protect our children and our communities.

Why expanding registries won’t protect our children.

Congress’ well-intentioned effort to protect our children by expanding sex offender registries won’t work because registries fail to recognize the complex realities of sexual offending. A large percentage of sex offenses are committed by people known to the victim — including family members. A U.S. Department of Justice study shows that, among youth who were victims of sexual violence, almost half (49 percent) of youth under age six and 42 percent of children ages six to 11 in the study were sexually assaulted by a family member. Overall, the study concluded that 34 percent of youth victims (0–17 years old) were sexually assaulted by a family member and 59 percent were assaulted by acquaintances. In other words, only 7 percent of youth victims in this study were assaulted by strangers. Since most people who commit sex offenses are “first-time offenders,” meaning that they have never been convicted of a sex offense, the majority of people committing sex offenses would not already be on the registry. Having a registry can therefore create a false sense of security within families and communities, who might rely on the registry to identify people who may be a threat to their safety.
Being on a registry can hinder a person’s ability to access rehabilitative services needed to lead a productive life and engage in appropriate, legal behavior. Registries can impede access to employment, housing and education, which have been shown to be an integral part of the re-entry process and a necessity for young people who are trying to turn their lives around. Instead of funding preventative programs, registries burden our already over-taxed law enforcement resources and create public safety hazards.

The Adam Walsh Act consumes resources that should be spent on programs proven to protect our children and communities The Adam Walsh Act requires states to register more people and keep track of them for even longer periods of time, without the availability of substantial additional federal funding. All states currently have some form of registry and community notification, but fully implementing AWA poses significant financial and logistical challenges. As an unfunded mandate, the AWA provides little federal funding for implementation and stands to cost states more than they will receive in federal funding. AWA requires states to participate in a national registry and to disseminate the registry widely throughout communities. States that intend to comply with AWA should be prepared to finance new software and technology costs to fully implement the registry.

The Adam Walsh Act needlessly targets children and families

In the push to target people that may actually pose a significant danger to the public, youth convicted of sex offenses have been swept up in legislation that publicly brands them as sexual predators. Research has shown, however, that juvenile sexual offending is very different from adult sexual offending, and that youth are not committing the majority of sex offenses.

The Adam Walsh Act compromises public safety

Reliance on registries creates the illusion that parents can protect their children from sexual violence simply by checking an online database. A survey of mental health professionals found that 70 percent of those surveyed felt that “a listing of sex offenders on the web would create a false sense of security for parents who might feel that they can protect their children simply by checking a web site.” Despite registry requirements and stiff penalties for not registering, registries are often inaccurate and out of date. The result is misdirected apprehension and the alienation of people who live at an address listed on the database, but who have never been convicted of any crime.

In every state, the first-year cost of implementing the Adam Walsh Act outweighs the cost of losing 10 percent of the state’s Byrne grant money. The Justice Policy Institute calculated estimates of the potential costs of coming into compliance with Title I of the Adam Walsh Act based on the fiscal impact drafted by one state. States that complete individual, comprehensive analyses based on their unique statutory and law enforcement characteristics may arrive at different figures. Regardless of individual state differences in statutes, technology, and law enforcement resources, the added staff and technology needed to come into full compliance with the AWA is sure to exceed the Byrne funds that would be lost by not complying.

In the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission’s Fiscal Impact Statement for Proposed Legislation, Senate Bill No. 590 – ID# 08-0244808, the state found that implementing a registry and notification system that would be in compliance with the Adam Walsh Act would cost $12,497,267 in the first year of implementation.

Justice Policy Institute: Cost for states to comply with AWA

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