Sex Offender Law Goes Too Far

April 10, 2009

Philadelphia Enquirer : Editorial: Sex offender law goes too far.

States are facing a July deadline to track sex offenders under a misguided federal law that casts too wide a net and is too harsh toward juveniles.

The Adam Walsh Act – named for a 6-year-old boy abducted and murdered in 1981 – makes it a federal felony for a convicted sex offender to fail to reregister after moving to a new state. It also raises the penalties in many states for offenders who never registered.

The law approved by Congress in 2006 is an effort to monitor more effectively an estimated 100,000 sex offenders who are not living where they registered. Many states, including Pennsylvania, already have sex-offender registries modeled after New Jersey’s first-in-the-nation “Megan’s Law.”

But states are finding the new federal law too cumbersome and costly to comply with. Of the 20 or so states that have submitted plans to Washington, none has been deemed in full compliance. Many others have asked the Justice Department for an extension of one or two years.

States that don’t comply with the law risk losing some of their federal crime-prevention grants. Some state officials say the loss of grant money would be far cheaper than the cost of meeting all the new requirements for tracking offenders. California estimates that implementing the new law would cost the state at least an extra $38 million.

Pennsylvania is still reviewing its options, said Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Gov. Rendell. The state should ask for a delay, to give Congress more time to address numerous concerns with the legislation.

For example, the law requires juvenile sex offenders age 14 or older to be on the registry – possibly for life – with their identities publicized. This provision flies against state laws that generally protect the identities of minors charged with crimes. And it ignores the data showing that juveniles are less likely than adults to commit another sex crime later in life.

Advocates for victims say the law could deter families from coming forward to report abuse, for fear of stigmatizing a youthful offender well into adulthood.

The national law is an overly broad response to high-profile, but relatively rare, cases in which a sex offender is released from prison, relocates to a new state, and preys on another victim. The vast majority of child sexual abuse cases don’t result from “stranger danger.” More than 90 percent of child victims are harmed by people known to them, most often people in their family.

The new requirements also raise an issue of illegally punishing parolees retroactively. In some states, sex offenders were told they would need to register for 10 years upon their release from prison. Now, they find out they could be on a registry for life.

States should base the monitoring of offenders on an individual’s particular circumstances, such as his likelihood to commit another offense or his amenability to treatment. The federal government shouldn’t force states to lump the worst criminals into a broad pool for tracking with others who don’t pose the same danger.

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