Region resists fed sex offender rules

Local,DC,Freeman Klopott
Virginia, Maryland and the District are struggling to comply with a five-year-old federal mandate to create a national sex offender registry and critics say their failure could cause them to attract violent sex criminals to the region.

Despite two one-year extensions, only seven states have met the requirements of the Adam Walsh Act. With a final, July 27 deadline looming, some jurisdictions are scrambling to get in compliance. Maryland and Virginia have passed laws in recent years that keep better track of sex offenders through stricter reporting requirements. But lawmakers have been reluctant to require violent juvenile offenders to register for at least 25 years and aren't happy with being stuck with a multimillion-dollar tab, either.

The District is furthest from compliance in the Washington region and jurisdictions that fall behind the others could become havens for sex offenders, officials said.

Sticking points
Parts of Adam Walsh Act that have slowed states' compliance:
-- A requirement to create a non-public list of youths 14 years or older convicted of violent sex offenses and leaving them on the list for at least 25 years.
-- The law requires states to rely on the level of offense -- from violent to nonviolent sex crimes -- rather than assessments of how the risk each offender carries to society in determining how long the offender will stay on the registry. States like Texas assess every sex offender to determine the length of stay on the registry.
-- The cost of implementing the law has kept some states from moving forward. The law requires significant changes to how states check on offenders and changes to the software states use to track and alert the public to sex offenders in their area. Although the Justice Department provides some of the software and some grant money for the changes, it doesn't cover it all.

"All jurisdictions are concerned that they will be perceived as having a laxer registration requirement than other jurisdictions and that this perception will encourage sex offenders to relocate," Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander recently told a D.C. Council committee.

"We've seen evidence that sex offenders move from one jurisdiction to another because they may not be as closely monitored," Linda Baldwin, who runs the U.S. Department of Justice office that determines whether states are compliant with the Walsh Act, told The Washington Examiner.

"[The Adam Walsh Act] was designed to eliminate gaps and loopholes among states' sex offender registration regulations," she said. "Gaps and loopholes allow registered sex offenders to fall off the radar."

A major sticking point for many areas, including Maryland and D.C., is the federal requirement that youths 14 and older found guilty of a violent sex offense by the juvenile justice system be put on a sex offender registry for at least 25 years. The youth registry does not have to be public, but must be available to law enforcement agencies. "The existence of a permanent registry for young people may have a chilling effect on reporting [sex offenses]," Daniel Okonkwo, head of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, recently told the D.C. Council. "Families may be more reluctant to report abuses to avoid further court involvement."

The cost of implementing the Walsh Act has also slowed states' progress. Jurisdictions deemed by Baldwin's office to not have met the mandate by the deadline could lose 10 percent of a Justice Department grant that many states use to purchase equipment and provide training. The dollars at stake -- about $200,000 for D.C., and $500,000 for Maryland and Virginia each year -- often don't outweigh the costs of meeting the mandate. In Virginia, it could cost $10 million to fully implement the federal law. D.C. has not yet priced legislation introduced last month and cost isn't an issue in Maryland, which is nearly compliant.

At-large D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson, who is "working on the bill," said "the cost of implementation is likely to exceed the dollars at risk, and the dollars at risk may evaporate with budget cuts in Congress."

He added, "the idea that we might become a haven for sex offenders if we don't meet the requirements sounds like rhetoric to me."

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