States balk at tighter sex-offender rules - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

States balk at tighter sex-offender rules

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Posted: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 12:30 am

WASHINGTON - Five years after Congress called for better oversight of the nation's 100,000 missing sex offenders, only seven states have adopted federal standards for tracking the 728,000 Americans convicted of sex crimes.

After blowing deadlines in 2009 and 2010, most states will miss a third one on July 27, the U.S. Justice Department predicts. Linda Baldwin, director of its Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking office, said in an interview that she expects only 10 to 15 states to meet the coming deadline for tracking sex offenders.

Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota and Wyoming already have complied with federal standards.

Baldwin, whose office oversees enforcement, added that several other states, which she declined to identify, may not meet the deadline but are "very close" to complying.

States that don't stand to lose millions of dollars in criminal justice-related federal grants. States overall were allocated nearly $268 million for 2010, Justice Department data show. Those that miss the deadline could lose 10 percent of their respective shares.

Part of the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act -- named for the Florida boy who was abducted and killed in 1981 -- the rules require states to develop uniform standards for tracking offenders in the community and posting information on public registries.

With thousands of AWOL sex offenders eluding oversight by slipping across state lines, the law's sponsors envisioned seamless national standards replacing the current hodgepodge of state laws.

A Scripps Howard News Service investigation last November showed how sex offenders take advantage of uneven state laws, congregating in regions with lax enforcement. In response, a House subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security conducted a sex offender oversight hearing in February. It focused on why states were dragging their feet implementing the Walsh law.

"I am not pleased," Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. and the subcommittee chair, said at the hearing. "The whole purpose of the act was to make it easier to track these offenders, yet many of the same problems remain because so many states have failed to fully comply with the law."

States have balked for many reasons. Aside from the millions of dollars some states estimate they would have to pay to implement the law, many states say their own rules for flagging serious sex offenders are better than the federal standards required by the Walsh law.

The law "waters down the effectiveness" of Texas' sex offender registry, said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative policy group based in Austin.

"These registries need to be narrowly tailored, and this federal mandate goes too far," Levin said. "Some people will be getting a lifetime a scarlet letter when they shouldn't have it."

Texas, with more than 60,000 registered sex offenders, won't take action anytime soon.

"The Legislature just went home" and won't reconvene until January 2013, said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "We won't be in compliance with the Adam Walsh Act."

By not complying, Texas would be denied about $2 million, based on 2010 Justice Department statistics.

But implementing the law would require spending as much as $14 million a year, the Texas Legislative Budget Board, a research body for lawmakers, has estimated.

California, with more than 63,000 sex offenders, has also not met the federal guidelines and could lose $3 million, according to department data.

A spokesman for the California Department of Justice did not respond to an interview request.

Baldwin said states that do not meet the deadline may apply for those lost funds -- as long as they use the money to implement the Walsh law.

When President George W. Bush signed the Walsh Act into law in 2006, states were given three years to revamp their sex offender tracking rules. No state met the 2009 deadline, and federal authorities provided two one-year extensions.

A particularly thorny point of disagreement between states and federal officials has been what to do with juveniles convicted of a sex crime: The federal law requires states to place underage offenders on registries, but many states think that's too punitive. To resolve this impasse, the Justice Department in January said states could keep information about juvenile offenders out of the public domain, only sharing that information among law enforcement agencies.

In Kansas, state lawmakers in May tweaked its sex offender rules -- including reducing the amount of time offenders had to register when moving within the state, changing jobs or going to a new school from 10 days to three -- to comply with the Walsh law.

GOP State Rep. Pat Colloton, who chairs the Kansas Legislature's corrections and juvenile justice committee, said Kansas was submitting its sex offender oversight paperwork and thought the state would meet the deadline.

Colloton said she thinks states shouldn't be penalized: "Taking money away -- it seems to me to be the wrong penalty. ... The states should get at least one more legislative session."

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