Walsh Act Changes Are a Win for States

 
The U.S. Justice Department has proposed major regulatory changes to the Adam Walsh Act, a 2006 federal law requiring all states to crack down on sex offenders by July or risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money.

The proposed changes, which were posted in the Federal Register on Friday (May 14) and face a two-month public comment period, address some of the most controversial provisions of the law, which many states have criticized as cost-prohibitive and overly strict.

Named after the murdered 6-year-old son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh, the Adam Walsh Act dramatically ramps up criminal penalties for sex offenders who fail to register with authorities, and requires states to group offenders into "tiers" based on the severity of their crimes. States also must include more personal information about sex offenders that appears on public registries, such as their home and work addresses.

If states do not comply with the law by July, they will lose 10 percent of their funds under a congressional grant program that pays for local anti-crime initiatives, including police salaries.

As Stateline has reported , however, many states disagree with key provisions of the law that they see as too strict, including a stipulation that some juvenile sex offenders as young as 14 be placed on public registries. In Delaware, as the Wilmington News-Journal recently reported , some offenders as young as 9 are listed on the public sex offender Web site. Youth advocates and others have said that posting images and personal information of juveniles can lead to harassment, and that juveniles should not be grouped with more serious, adult criminals.

The changes proposed Friday give states the discretion to decide if they want to include juveniles on their registries.

Under another proposed change, sex offenders whose crimes pre-dated the Adam Walsh Act, and who have exited the justice system, would not be forced to abide by its registration requirements. While courts have found the provision constitutional — holding that registration is not a new criminal penalty but a civil, regulatory requirement instead — states have argued that it is overly burdensome to track down and register sex offenders who already have served their time and re-joined the population. The Justice Department recognized that concern, giving states "greater latitude" not to register certain offenders.  

"It may not be possible for jurisdictions to identify and register all sex offenders who fall within the (Adam Walsh Act) registration categories, particularly where they have left the justice system and merged into the general population long ago," the new rules say.

Only one state — Ohio — has complied with the Adam Walsh Act so far. Several others have asked for a one-year extension to meet the law's demands. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder already has granted all states a one-year extension, underscoring the difficulty states have had in complying with the law.

While there is broad political agreement on the overall goals of the Adam Walsh Act, the changes proposed Friday show that states' concerns are being heard in Washington, D.C. Members of Congress also have acknowledged that they may have overreached with the legislation.

"I don't think anyone disputes the goals of the Adam Walsh Act," U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, recently told the Bangor Daily News . "But there are many states having a hard time, as is Maine, in complying with the law, and we should look at what the states are saying."

 

 
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