By Christina Horst, Project Coordinator, Managing Sex Offenders: Enhancing Law Enforcement’s Response, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Alexandria, Virginia
n 1994, the federal Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Registration Act established the first standards for sex offender registration and notification in the United States.1 The Wetterling Act required sex offenders to register their residence with local law enforcement and mandated the creation of state sex offender Web sites. Under this act, the states had discretion in deciding which registrants and what information would be posted on the Web site and did not require sex offenders to register their employment or school information. With registration and notification implemented differently in each jurisdiction, sex offenders could “state shop,” that is, move to states with less stringent requirements.
Identifying the need for consistency across jurisdictions in registering and tracking sex offenders, U.S. president George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (commonly known as the Walsh Act) into law in July 2006.2 The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), Title I of the Walsh Act, establishes comprehensive standards for sex offender registration and notification. SORNA was established to decrease victimization rates and increase public safety through improved monitoring and tracking mechanisms for sex offenders. Additionally, SORNA seeks to close gaps and potential loopholes in current sex offender programs by promoting offender accountability and increasing sanctions for violations. All 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, the five principal U.S. territories (Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico), and federal Indian tribes are defined as jurisdictions under SORNA.
In May 2007, the U.S. attorney general’s office issued proposed guidelines for the Adam Walsh Act to aid jurisdictions with implementation.3 Public comment was open until August 1, 2007, allowing interested parties to submit commentary on the proposed guidelines. Final guidelines are expected to be released 60–90 days after closing of the comment period. Currently, SORNA will significantly affect state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, which are primarily responsible for registration and notification activities. This article outlines SORNA’s potential implications for law enforcement in the following areas:
- Tier classification system
- Duration of registration
- Notification and information sharing
- Noncompliance and the role of the U.S. Marshals Service
- Juvenile sex offenders
SORNA and Law Enforcement
Registration plays an integral role in monitoring sex offenders released into the community. Registration provides law enforcement with the whereabouts of all sex offenders in the community, which functions as a valuable investigative resource. Additionally, by improving the information released to citizens via public registry and increasing registration and verification standards for sex offenders, SORNA intends to increase offender accountability by making it difficult for sex offenders to escape detection.
SORNA will affect the way law enforcement agencies conduct sex offender registration and notification in several ways:
- Expanding information collected during registration
- Expanding information posted on the state/public registry
- Outlining the duration of registration
- Following a three-tier classification system to determine length of registration and frequency of verification
- Mandating that sex offenders periodically verify their information by physically reporting to the agency with registration responsibilities
- Expanding the classes of sex offenders and offenses that require registration
The primary implications for law enforcement will involve assigning additional personnel to conduct registration and verification activities. Additionally, agencies must determine a location to accommodate an increased number of sex offender registrants who are required to come to the agency on a regular schedule to complete the in-person periodic verification checks.
SORNA also created the Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking Office (SMART) as part of the Office of Justice Programs of the U.S. Department of Justice. SMART was established to assist jurisdictions with implementing the standards set forth in SORNA. SMART will serve as an important resource for jurisdictions as states begin to interpret the Walsh Act and change policies and procedures to comply. SMART will also provide grant funding to jurisdictions to help establish registration and notification programs in compliance with SORNA.
Further support is planned to aid jurisdictions in implementing the following programs:
- Federal investigation and prosecution efforts to assist law enforcement agencies to enforce SORNA requirements
- The National Sex Offender Registry and the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Web site
- Software tools provided by the federal government to aid registration and notification programs
SORNA standards apply to all sex offenders, including those whose offenses occurred before the Walsh Act. Jurisdictions must make every effort to apply SORNA to certain groups of offenders who may remain in or reenter the justice system, including the following:
- Those who are incarcerated or under supervision, either for the previous sex offense or for another crime
- Those who are already registered or subject to preexisting registration requirements within that jurisdiction
- Those who reenter the justice system because of a conviction for some other crime (which may or may not be a sex offense)
However, it is recognized that the law enforcement community will not be able to identify all sex offenders who have integrated back into society and are no longer under supervision.
SORNA also extends sex offender registration and notification jurisdictions to include federally recognized Indian tribes. By July 2007 certain tribes had either to delegate sex offender registration and notification functions to the state or states in which their land is located or to begin conducting registration and notification on tribal land. If tribes opt to implement SORNA on their own and fail to implement all necessary standards by July 2009, registration and notification functions will automatically be turned over to the state or states in which their land is located.
SORNA Registration and Registry
Prior to the Walsh Act, many sex offenders took advantage of the gap between release from incarceration and registration by moving to another jurisdiction or falling under the radar of law enforcement. This gap exists because registration responsibilities have traditionally been placed in the hands of the offender. SORNA now requires that registration take place before an offender is released from incarceration or within three days of conviction if imprisonment is not mandated. The federal Bureau of Prisons must notify local law enforcement and/or the agency responsible for maintaining registration information before a sex offender is released from incarceration.
SORNA expands the categories of registration information collected. A complete list of information can be found in section 114 of SORNA.4 Also expanded is the information included on public sex offender Web sites, which must include information on all sex offenders who live, work, or attend school within that jurisdiction. The goal of these standards is to create uniformity among public sex offender Web sites and to offer accurate information to both the public and to other law enforcement agencies.
Information to be shared with the public via sex offender Web sites now includes the following:
- Name of the sex offender, to include all aliases.
- Address of the sex offender’s residence; if no permanent address is available, information regarding the primary location of the sex offender must be provided. If the information is not available because the sex offender is in violation, the public Web site must include this fact.
- Address of the sex offender’s place of employment, including information about where the sex offender works if no permanent address of employment is provided.
- Address of the place where the sex offender is or will be a student.
- License plate number and description of any vehicle owned or operated by the sex offender.
- A physical description of the sex offender.
- The text of the registerable sex offenses committed by the offender and any other sex offense for which the offender has been convicted.
- A current photograph of the sex offender.
It is expected that citizens will use the information provided on the public registry to take the proper precautions to protect themselves and their family from potential risks in the community.
Tier Classification System
SORNA creates a three-tier classification system for sex offenders based on the severity of the offense committed. The tier system has been established to include the following offenses:
Tier 1: A sex offender other than a tier 2 or tier 3 offender whose offenses may include all that do not support a higher classification, such as misdemeanor registration offenses and possession of child pornography.
Tier 2: A sex offender other than a tier 3 sex offender whose offense is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, which includes most felonious sexual abuse or sexual exploitation crimes involving victims who are minors.
Tier 3: A sex offender whose offense is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year and includes sexual assaults involving sexual acts regardless of victim age, sexual contact offenses against children below the age of 13, nonparental kidnapping of minors, and attempts or conspiracies to commit such offenses.
Jurisdictions do not have to establish a new tier system for sex offenders in order to comply with SORNA. However, convictions must be translated to a corresponding tier to determine length of registration, frequency of verification, and Web site information.
Duration of Registration
SORNA establishes minimum standards for the length of time sex offenders must register and update information with law enforcement. Duration of registration is based on the tier under which the offender’s conviction falls. Tier classifications for registration are as follows:
- Tier 1: 15 years
- Tier 2: 25 years
- Tier 3: lifetime registration
For sex offenders with a conviction that predates SORNA, the amount of time they have been living unsupervised in the community will be credited toward the total duration of registration.
The Wetterling Act required the establishment of procedures to support annual verification checks for registered sex offenders; however, states were given discretion in implementing this requirement. SORNA now requires sex offenders to physically go to the agency in whose jurisdiction they are located to verify registration information on a regular basis, with the frequency varying based on conviction. At that time, sex offenders are required to verify and update registration information and have a current photograph of themselves taken. The frequency of verification checks is as follows:
- Tier 1: annual verification
- Tier 2: every six months
- Tier 3: every three months
The purpose of verification checks is to ensure that sex offenders are keeping registration information accurate, allowing law enforcement to know of the whereabouts of sex offenders and maintain the accuracy of information on public Web sites. Under SORNA, sex offenders must carry out verification responsibilities in all jurisdictions where they live, work, or attend school. Jurisdictions may also mandate more frequent verifications for those offenders whom they deem a higher risk to the public.
Notification/Improved Information Sharing
When a sex offender registers or updates registry information with law enforcement, that information must immediately be made available to law enforcement and the public via the National Sex Offender Registry and the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW).5 The NSOPW provides public access to information housed in state sex offender Web sites through a single query search on the national site. Jurisdictions may need to add additional field search capabilities to already existing Web sites to fully participate in the NSOPW and comply with SORNA. SORNA also requires that state sex offender Web sites allow citizens to request notification via e-mail when sex offenders take up residence, secure employment, or attend school within a certain geographic radius.
SORNA mandates that registration information be shared with the following groups:
- Law enforcement and supervision agencies
- Any jurisdiction where the sex offender resides, works, or attends school
- Each jurisdiction in which a change of residence, employment, or student status occurs
- Any agency responsible for conducting employment-related background checks under section three of the National Child Protection Act of 1993
- Each school and public housing agency in each area where the sex offender resides, works, or attends school
- Social-service entities responsible for protecting minors in the child welfare system
- Volunteer organizations in which contact with minors or other vulnerable individuals might occur
- Any organization, company, or individual who requests such notification pursuant to procedures established by the jurisdiction
The entities and individuals requiring immediate notification are those most likely to come in contact with sex offenders. Immediate notification is necessary for these groups to prepare for potential interactions with sex offenders in the community.
Noncompliance and the U.S. Marshals Service
Of grave concern to both law enforcement agencies and communities are sex offenders who have fallen through the cracks and are unaccounted for. According to recent estimates from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), there are currently over 600,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 sex offenders are out of compliance.6 Law enforcement agencies are responsible for locating these absconders and ensuring their compliance with current registration requirements.
Full text of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act can be viewed at
Tracking absconders is often a difficult task due to a shortage of resources, including personnel. The Walsh Act deems failure to register a federal felony, classifying unregistered sex offenders as felony fugitives. Before the Walsh Act, failure to comply could be treated as a misdemeanor in 25 states. The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) has been designated as the lead agency to assist law enforcement agencies in locating and apprehending sex offenders who are missing and noncompliant with registration requirements.
The partnership forged between the USMS and law enforcement agencies will further close the gap for unregistered and violent sex offenders, increasing offender accountability and reducing victimization in communities. Operation FALCON (Federal and Local Cops Organized Nationally) is a nationwide coordinated effort among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to round up fugitives wanted for committing sexual offenses, including unregistered convicted sex offenders. Three separate FALCON efforts have resulted in the capture of more than 30,000 fugitive felons, 3,314 of which were wanted for sex-related crimes.7 To further support the mission of protecting the community from unknown sex offenders, the USMS has partnered with the NCMEC to assist in locating and apprehending noncompliant sex offenders. The NCMEC created the Special Analysis Unit and equipped it with the technology and resources needed to search databases, analyze information, and aid in the search for missing sex offenders.8 The NCMEC has also hosted training sessions to provide the USMS with the necessary tools and investigative techniques to locate and apprehend noncompliant sex offenders.
Juvenile Sex Offenders
Before the Walsh Act, only juveniles prosecuted and convicted as adults were required to register. Now, youths aged 14 and older who are convicted of a crime comparable to aggravated sexual abuse or a more serious offense in juvenile court are subject to sex offender registration and notification. Juveniles convicted as adults for similar crimes are also subject to registration and notification requirements. SORNA mandates that juvenile sex offenders be treated in identical fashion as adult sex offenders, requiring them to register with local law enforcement upon conviction or release into the community, and certain information about juvenile sex offenders may be released to the public. SORNA sets the minimum standards for juvenile registration and notification, allowing states to implement stricter requirements for these offenders.
Standards set forth by the Walsh Act are meant to serve as a baseline by providing states with the minimum criteria needed to comply with the law. The Walsh Act requires that all jurisdictions implement SORNA standards by July 27, 2009. Jurisdictions may have laws that are more restrictive than SORNA as long as the baseline requirements are met. Any state or jurisdiction that fails to implement a considerable portion of the Walsh Act guidelines risks losing 10 percent of federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant funds.
SORNA provides consistency in sex offender registration and tracking mechanisms across jurisdictions, thereby closing loopholes created by a previous patchwork of legislation. SORNA standards are expected to enhance public safety and prevent future victimization by increasing public awareness of sex offenders in communities and promoting offender accountability through more stringent requirements. Law enforcement agencies will play a major role in ensuring sex offender compliance with SORNA standards and in preventing these offenders from falling through the cracks.■
|Since November 2005, the IACP has worked in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) toward the following four objectives:|
- To learn about and understand the law enforcement profession’s role in sex offender management
- To identify policy and operational challenges facing law enforcement agencies regarding sex offenders
- To design and develop resources to assist police managers
- To enhance agencies’ efforts to hold sex offenders accountable and reduce future victimization
Initial efforts focused on examining how law enforcement agencies are engaging volunteers to support and strengthen their sex offender management activities. Using volunteers is just one effective law enforcement approach. Law enforcement agencies are also creating specialized units and forging partnerships to further enhance and strengthen their abilities to monitor and track sex offenders in the community. The IACP is working to develop multiple products and resources to enhance the law enforcement response to sex offenders in the community. Please contact the IACP for information on related resources, including but not limited to the following:
- Sex Offenders in the Community: Enforcement and Prevention Strategies for Law Enforcement,9 a publication that identifies key enforcement and prevention strategies, offers specific examples from jurisdictions around the country, and provides sample address verification forms
- “Framing a Law Enforcement Response: Addressing Community Concerns about Sex Offenders,”10 a brochure that provides talking points designed to help officers frame an agency response to 10 frequently asked questions regarding sex offenders
- Two publications in partnership with the American Probation and Parole Association that will provide guidelines for information sharing between the law enforcement and corrections communities regarding sex offenders in the community and guidelines on the advantages and disadvantages of electronic monitoring technology used to track sex offenders
- A forthcoming IACP model policy addressing sex offenders in the community (in partnership with the National Law Enforcement Model Policy Center)
- A Webcast on the use of risk assessment tools
To request copies of the above resources or for more information on IACP sex offender initiatives, please contact Alissa Huntoon at 1-800-THE-IACP, extension 812, or Christina Horst at 1-800-THE-IACP, extension 830.
1Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act (1994), codified at U.S. Code 42, Chapter 136, Subchapter VI, § 14071.
2Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (2006), Public Law 109-248, U.S. Statutes at Large 120 (2006): 587.
3U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, “The National Guidelines for Sex Offender Registration and Notification—Proposed Guidelines, May 2007,” Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, & Tracking (SMART), http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/smart/proposed.htm (accessed September 24, 2007).
4Ibid., see section on “Required Registration Information.”
5U.S. Department of Justice, Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website, http://www.nsopr.gov/ (accessed September 24, 2007).
6National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “U.S. Marshals Participate in Specialized Training to Find Sex Offenders,” The FrontLine, Summer 2007, http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications/NC93.pdf (September 24, 2007), 6.
7U.S. Marshals Service, “Operation Falcon: Federal and Local Cops Organized Nationally,” http://www.usmarshals.gov/falcon/index.html (accessed September 24, 2007).
8National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Creates New Unit to Help Find 100,000 Missing Sex Offenders and Calls for States to Do Their Part,” press release, February 28, 2007, http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/NewsEventServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=3081 (accessed September 24, 2007).
9International Association of Chiefs of Police, Sex Offenders in the Community: Enforcement and Prevention Strategies for Law Enforcement, September 2007, http://www.theiacp.org/profassist/reentry/sexoffendersinthecommunity.pdf (accessed October 9, 2007).
10International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Framing a Law Enforcement Response: Addressing Community Concerns about Sex Offenders,” http://www.theiacp.org/profassist/reentry/offenderbrochure.pdf (accessed October 10, 2007).