The Justice Policy Institute, a national organization focusing on juvenile and criminal justice issues, warned that compliance with the Adam Walsh Act will provide little in the way of public safety benefits at substantial costs, particularly for those who must now be on sex offender registries for juvenile offenses.
To provide policymakers with more information about the negative impacts of SORNA, JPI is broadly releasing their report Registering Harm: How Sex Offense Registries Fail Youth and Communities. (This report had a limited release in 2008.) Registering Harm concludes that while the prevention of sexual violence should be a priority for policymakers and the criminal justice system, the registration and community notification of youth convicted of sex offenses is unlikely to improve public safety, can have a lifetime of negative effects on a young person, and often penalizes an entire family. Furthermore, advocates say placing youth on sex offense registries is contrary to the purpose of the juvenile justice system, and SORNA has been found to be unconstitutional and in violation of children’s rights.
“There is a growing concern that this well-intentioned legislation is having serious negative consequences, particularly for young people,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “Our juvenile justice system was set up to give delinquent youth a second chance; due to the very public and punitive nature of the online registries, the Act denies them this chance.”
“Courts have ruled as recently as this month that SORNA is unconstitutional as it is retroactively punitive,” added Velázquez, referring to the recent ruling by the ninth circuit court. “We know that states are being pressured to pass this legislation through threats of withholding federal dollars. However, in light of these serious civil rights issues, we urge state lawmakers to resist rushing into compliance, and to instead focus on insisting that their federal counterparts change this flawed legislation.”
Registering Harm examines the public safety implications associated with implementing SORNA, which would expand registries already established at state levels, requiring states to list all registrants on a national online database and to include children convicted of certain sex offenses. Although originally all states were required to come into compliance with SORNA in July 2009 or face losing a portion of their Justice Assistance Grant Program funds, no states were in compliance at that time and the U.S. Attorney general extended the deadline for compliance to July 2010. Most troubling, according to the report, is that under SORNA youth as young as 14 would be placed on registries, making them more likely to experience rejection from peer groups and positive social networks and therefore more likely to associate with delinquent or troubled peers. Additionally, as the Ninth Circuit Court pointed out, the registration of adult for decades-old juvenile offenses “threatens to disrupt the stability of their lives and to ostracize them from their communities,” notwithstanding years of living law-abiding and productive lives.
The report also notes that many of the offenses committed by youth are normative teenage behaviors. These behaviors are now criminalized and punished in ways that can last a lifetime. The report also concludes what similar reports, such as “The Pursuit of Safety” by the Vera Institute of Justice, also find, which is that registries do little to protect public safety, and may even endanger youth. And while states may lose federal dollars by not complying, JPI’s analysis shows that meeting the Act’s many requirements will likely cost more. SORNA implementation would leave law enforcement tasked with database management rather than community protection.
“Rather than educating the public about general practices for keeping children and communities safe from sexual violence, this Act encourages a disproportionate allocation of resources and inappropriate focus on registries and the people on them,” said Velázquez. She added that in some states, people can be placed on registries for offenses such as public urination or lewd bumper stickers on their car, which would make it difficult for people using the registry to determine who could be a possible threat to their families or neighborhoods.
Key findings in Registering Harm include:
- The Act mis-allocates resources to a fraction of sexual violence incidences. Registries are designed to warn the public, and particularly parents, of “stranger danger;” however, sexual assaults are seldom committed by strangers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than nine in 10 sexual offenses against children were committed by either a family member or acquaintance. In addition, 87 percent of the people arrested for a sex offense in 1997 had not been previously convicted of a sex offense and therefore would not appear on a registry. The resource mis-allocation caused by the expansion of registries in the Act has an especially significant impact given the budget crises faced in many states.
- Overbroad registration or notification practices make it difficult for the public to determine who on the registry may pose a public safety threat and who doesn’t. Even the tier system of SORNA still provides little context to people who receive notification or view a public registry. In a review of all state registries, Human Rights Watch found that only five states provided enough understandable information on online registries for the public to be able to interpret the charge and the age of both the registrant and the victim.
- Registration and notification overburdens law enforcement. State and federal laws are enacted at the local level, leaving local law enforcement agencies and corrections departments to implement and shoulder the burden of registration and notification legislation. Law enforcement is forced to dedicate a great deal of time and resources to monitoring people on the registries, finding people who have failed to register, and constantly ensuring that information on the registry is correct.
- Registries and notification create barriers to education, employment, housing, and other social networks and outlets, making it difficult to live successfully in the community. Many states compound the barriers posed by registries with residency restrictions. This leads to increased risk of probation or parole violations or illegal behavior, which may lead to further incarceration.
- Public dollars could be better spent on effective prevention strategies that more comprehensively address ways to reduce sexual violence and abuse. The report recommends that policymakers on federal, state, and local levels employ proactive preventative strategies like educating communities about effective ways to prevent sexual violence, which can be a more effective way of increasing public safety.
“Our public policies should be driven by what works to keep people safe,” added Velázquez. “SORNA is one example of well-intentioned but unsound legislation that will have particularly toxic results, especially for youth. We need to move past emotion and rhetoric, and start putting in place more rational, effective policies for all.”
The report can be viewed here: www.justicepolicy.org/content-hmID=1811&smID=1581&ssmID=80.htm.