States Resist Federal Sex-Offender Registry
By ANA CAMPOY
The federal government's attempt to track sex offenders more effectively is hitting resistance from states concerned over the plan's costs and reliability.
A federal law, named the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act after the murdered son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh, seeks to create a uniform national system out of a hodgepodge of sex-offender-registration laws in different states. Proponents of the law, which passed in 2006, say it will close loopholes they believe allow criminals to move from state to state undetected.
States have until July 27 to comply, or they will lose federal funds. Ohio, Delaware, South Dakota and Florida already have adopted the law. The Justice Department says many states have introduced legislation that would put them in compliance.
Objections have arisen in such states as Texas, where officials say existing local laws are tougher on sex offenders than the new standards. The federal act "contradicts what our research over 30 years indicates," said Allison Taylor, executive director of Texas's Council on Sex Offender Treatment, an advisory body with a governor-appointed board. "Public safety would not be enhanced."
Texas also complains that the price of implementing the federal law—about $38.8 million, according to one state estimate—far exceeds the $1.4 million in federal money the state would lose if it didn't comply.
"In this budget climate, we don't have the luxury of spending an additional $40 million," said Dan Patrick, a Republican state senator who represents part of Houston. Texas is facing a budget deficit of as much as $27 billion in the next two years.
Federal officials say states' worries about costs are overblown. Scott Matson, a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Justice Department office that is helping states implement the act, said one estimate pegged the cost at $18 million in Ohio, but the program turned out running closer to $400,000.
Mr. Walsh said it would be "a crime" if Texas failed to adopt the law, since the participation of every state is necessary to catch offenders on the run. "What if you were raped tonight in the parking lot or if your child is molested by a sex offender that jumped from another state?" he said in an interview.
Police say the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by family members or acquaintances of victims, not unknown perpetrators who might appear in a database. In Houston, Lt. Ruben Diaz, who heads the sex crimes unit at the Harris County sheriff's department, said it was very rare to find the perpetrator of a new sex crime among those already in the registry.
But he said the current Texas registry was "a powerful tool," which the unit uses to track offenders and ensure they comply with the terms of their parole or probation. Some academic studies have suggested that public registries may deter sex crimes.
Other states are also balking at the federal standards. In a letter to Congress last month, the office of California's attorney general cited "serious concerns" with implementing the Adam Walsh act, including not only cost, but also its inclusion of some juvenile offenders.
Some states are raising another concern: that the federal standards use the crimes for which offenders were convicted to assess the threat they pose. Several states, including Arizona and Texas, prefer a ranking system that uses factors such as the offenders' ages and their relationships to their victims to determine how likely they are to offend again.
Those states fear that implementing the federal act would increase the number of offenders that law enforcement has to monitor, rather than focusing on the most dangerous risks. "We're concerned Adam Walsh would decrease the standards of monitoring," said state Sen. Krysten Sinema, a Democrat who represents part of Phoenix.
Linda Baldwin, who directs the U.S. Justice Department office that is helping states implement the act, said that while some states would have to track more offenders under federal rules, the act is often misunderstood and its burdens overstated.
As a result of its adoption in Delaware, about 1,000 new individuals were targeted for registration, including one sex offender who was found selling candy at the beach, said the state's Attorney General Beau Biden.
Derrick Driscoll, chief inspector of the sex-offender investigation branch at the U.S. Marshals Service, said his agency has arrested more than 1,000 Adam Walsh Act fugitives, but that more could be done if all states evened out their disparate registration requirements by complying with the law. "It would definitely enhance our capabilities nationwide," he said.
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