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Defunding the Fight Against Sexual Predators

Posted By Cully Stimson On March 5, 2009 @ 9:36 am In Legal | Comments Disabled

Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech to the National Association of Attorney’s General this week. In that speech, he renewed the Justice Department’s support for the Adam Walsh Act. The Adam Walsh Act—passed by a wide margin in Congress—requires some convicted sex offenders to register with local authorities.

So far, so good, right? One problem: to date, Eric Holder’s Department of Justice 2010 budget gives $0 to implementation of the Adam Walsh Act, and $0 to the SMART Office which implements the Act.

There is more to this than meets the eye. It is no secret that there has been a small but vocal liberal chorus of opponents to the Adam Walsh Act. They do not think dangerous sex offenders should have to register with local authorities. Of course, they know that their opinion is an extreme minority opinion. They also know that no politician will publicly endorse convicted sex offenders.

So, since the Adam Walsh Act passed in 2006, they have adopted a two-prong assault on the Adam Walsh Act.

First, they fought various provisions of the Act in court, attacking the retroactivity and juvenile provisions of the Act. There is nothing wrong with that, as many federal acts are challenged in court. Only so much can be done in the light of day, however.

Second, they are working secretly behind closed doors with key Congressman to gut the primary purpose of the Act entirely—minimum national standards for sex offender registration. They want to replace the conviction-based registration requirement system with a roll of the dice, so-called “risk assessments.”

A risk assessment “works” like this: a convicted sex offender sits down with someone who works on behalf of the government. That someone—trained or untrained— asks the convict a few questions about past history and future desires. After the oftentimes brief question and answer period, that someone may or may not verify the information provided by the convicted sex offender. That someone then decides whether or not the convicted sex offender poses a risk to society. If he does, then he might be required to register; if not, then maybe he doesn’t have to register. In other words, the evaluator is supposed to predict future behavior based on information provided by the convict himself. There is no consensus in professional literature on the accuracy of risk assessments at all. Yet this is exactly what opponents of mandatory conviction-based registration are urging Congressional leaders to adopt.

We wouldn’t even know about this behind-the-scenes shenanigans were it not for the former head of the SMART Office giving a speech last week to the Surviving Parents’ Coalition. In that speech (full text below) Director Rogers warns the Coalition of the attacks on the Adam Walsh Act, and the agenda of the far left.

Since the speech, members of the Surviving Parents Coalition—which includes household names like Ed Smart, Erin Runnion, Mark Lunsford and others- – -have given those “key” members of Congress an ear full why requiring convicted sex offenders to register makes sense.

Full text of remarks delivered by Laura Rogers, former Director of the SMART Office, to the Surviving Parents Coalition in February 17, 2009.

Good afternoon. I am honored to join you. It goes without saying that members of the Surviving Parents Coalition did not wish to be eligible to join this group. It is a sad statement indeed that in our society there is a need for an advocacy group such as yours. But make no mistake about it; we need you now more than ever. Why? Because we are at a fork in the road in terms of holding convicted sex offenders accountable. We can either move forward together or sit back, do nothing, and lose everything we have fought for.

My friends, we have progressed a great deal over the last two decades with respect to the registering and tracking of sex offenders. As many of you know, prior to the 1990’s there was no consistent sex offender registration and tracking system in the United States. It was a sex offender free for all. With the passage of the Wetterling Act and the successive amendments, much progress was made, including holding recidivist sex offenders accountable, requiring sex offenders to register where they resided, allowing for notification to school officials when sex offenders were present on campus, and the establishment of the National Sex Offender Public Website.

The ADAM WALSH ACT took the Wetterling Act to the next level. ADAM WALSH incorporated all of the subsequent amendments and enhanced sex offender registration and notification to include additional lessons learned, and established for the first time a new national minimum standard for sex offender registration and notification in the United States. ADAM WALSH creates a floor that jurisdictions must meet for sex offender registration and notification. This minimum standard was created to address the gaps and loopholes left by the Wetterling Act. Under Wetterling, there were areas in this country that were safe havens for sex offenders—places where there were no sex offender registration requirements and others where the existing laws were so lenient that sex offenders flocked to reside there. The standardized requirement to notify the residency address of a move did not exist, which resulted in misinformation on the National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW).

But my friends, the progress we have made together is in jeopardy. We are now at a fork in the road. There are those in Congress and around this country who strive to undo the work that you and I have labored long and hard to achieve. As most jurisdictions in this country are working diligently toward implementation of SEX OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION ACT (SORNA), there is an organized, well-funded movement to prolong the time period for substantial implementation of SORNA—to prolong the time period to put in place the minimum standards, to prolong the time period when you and I do not have the ability to identify sexual offenders who live, work and go to school within our midst.

Let me be blunt: We are engaged in a battle with those who believe that sex offenders should not be held accountable for their vicious acts, acts similar to those that brought each and every one of you here today. And make no mistake about it; we are in danger of loosing the battle.

Here is their game plan: attack the retroactivity provisions, withdraw the juvenile provisions of ADAM WALSH , then gut the Act and strip away mandatory registration for dangerous convicted sex offenders and then add a roll of the dice by adding risk assessments to the equation. I am here today to call for you to boost your already endless commitment to fight against those who seek to excuse the acts of sexual offenders and sexual murders.

The ADAM WALSH ACT establishes sound public policy. SORNA holds sexual offenders accountable based on the offenses they commit. Registration requirements are based on the solid evidence of the act that was committed and the crime for which the offender was convicted.

Let me address the topic of risk assessments. When Congress wrote the ADAM WALSH ACT, they specifically rejected the use of risk assessment tools as a method of determining the future dangerousness of a proven sexual offender. Yet opponents of the ADAM WALSH ACT want to replace registration with these unreliable risk assessments. Risk assessments, when used appropriately by a trained and qualified professional may provide some insight into the potential for recidivism of an adult—but no one—regardless of what crystal ball they look into—can determine if someone will again offend. Proponents of risk assessment tools as a measure to determine registration requirements for both adults and juveniles site the research. However, they completely ignore the experts who acknowledge that risk assessments are not a useful tool on juveniles.

According to Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, there are not enough qualified professionals in the United States to administer risk assessments to sex offenders. In fact there are complete states and jurisdictions that do not have a single qualified professional capable of administering a sex offender a risk assessment.

What do we see happening right now around the country? Washington State currently uses a risk assessment based system to classify sex offenders. While at the SMART Office, I spoke with a Washington state official who informed me that police officers administer risk assessment on sex offenders—the assessment consists of a check the box type format with little to no interview, no verification of information or expert training for the police officer administering the risk assessment. At best, when a risk assessment is administered by a trained expert such as a qualified psychologist it is at best a guess.

The opponents of sex offender registration, those who care more about empowering sex offenders than preventing the creation of more victims will argue that the recidivism rates of for example, incest sexual offenders is lower than other types of criminals—again, they rely on the research—research that I have no faith in—How do you measure the recidivism rate of sex offenders when we historically know that child molest victims have an incredibly low rate of disclosure, an extremely high rate of recantation and consequently low trial success?

You should know that opponents of registration have already met with elected officials here in Washington to get them to walk away from the ADAM WALSH ACT. Of course, no politician will publicly state that they are for child abuse and against holding perpetrators accountable. So they will add risk assessments, under the guise of making the ADAM WALSH ACT fairer, while at the same time gutting the mandatory registration requirements and juvenile registration. Unless you, and groups like you, pressure Congress to stick with ADAM WALSH, all of our work will have been for nothing.

The ADAM WALSH ACT is not perfectly constructed, but it sets a solid minimum standard for consistent sex offender registration across the country that is good policy. It goes without saying that those who crafted the ADAM WALSH ACT and SORNA did so with good intentions, but they did not consult professional child abuse prosecutors or those with frontline experience and knowledge. This is the reoccurring problem with politicians drafting sex offender legislation—a lack of practical experience and a shallow understanding of reality.

I was a frontline child abuse and child homicide prosecutor in San Diego for nearly a decade. While director of the SMART Office, I was responsible for the publication of the Final Guidelines. After a great deal of struggle within the Department we rectified the most challenging and problematic SEX OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION ACT (SORNA) issues by structuring the Final Guidelines. Trust me; those changes were necessary.

For example, prior to the Final Guidelines, there was a significant amount of controversy regarding the registering of juveniles under SORNA. Under the Wetterling standards, juveniles were not required to register—at all. There were jurisdictions that individually and randomly required juvenile sex offender registration. With a comprehensive implementation of SORNA, all jurisdictions will now have the same minimum protection against forcible sex offenders that coincidentally happen to be juveniles. Congress created the juvenile registration system to include all juveniles 14 years or older, adjudicated delinquent who committed an act of a forcible sex crime, a sexual act against a person who is intoxication or purposefully drugged or sexual against a child under 12 years old.

However, under the Act, a 13 year old who has consensual sex with someone no more than four years older than them does not have to register. On the other hand, a 14 year old who doesn’t have sex, but merely fondles a person under the age of 12, must register for life. That makes no sense, yet that is the law that Congress passed. Prosecutors, juvenile advocates and many others thought that this application was wrong and counter productive. I changed that provision in the Final Guidelines, despite push back in the Department of Justice. I was able to rectify the issue, without asking Congress to amend the ADAM WALSH ACT by giving jurisdictions the discretion not to register juveniles who engage in non-forcible conduct with children simply based on the age of the partner.

This change was made based on a well thought out desire to make a reasonable and logical change to allow for a rational implementation of the SORNA.

Those who we are battling at the fork in the road want to move back to the Wetterling days where juvenile sex offender registration is completely discretionary. They don’t want any minimum national standard for those forcible sexual offenders who happen to be juveniles. But let me tell you about a true case – …

I ask you as parents, mom and dads, sisters and brothers, do you care if the rapist that lives next door to you is14, 17 or 19 years old?
Are you comforted by the fact that SORNA provides you the opportunity to know that such a heinous criminal lives next door, or works at the local ice cream parlor or goes to school with your daughter?

This is a renewed call to action. Since the passage of SORNA, some jurisdictions have been fighting implementation citing financial strain. They say that the ADAM WALSH ACT is an unfunded mandate. Let me be clear here: I am against unfunded mandates, but ADAM WALSH is not an unfunded mandate. Now in these current tough economic times, jurisdictions are screaming even louder. Those in Congress who have always opposed the tough on sex offender SORNA registration requirements, but signed on solely for good photo opt but never with the intention to give this law the teeth it needs, will use this economic crisis to cloak their soft on sex offenders stance and gut the current construction of SORNA.

But with the new economic stimulus package, there is now more than enough money to implement the requirements of SORNA. The stimulus package that the President will sign today provides significant increases in JAG Byrne Grant and COPS money—all monies that can be used to implement SORNA. Lack of federal financial support is no longer an excuse.

So what is the underlying reason for the resistance from the jurisdictions to implement SORNA? Often times it is simply a matter of being stubborn and not wanting the federal government to tell the jurisdiction what to do. I have been an eye witness to state officials who misinterpret the minimum requirements of SORNA for the sole purpose of exaggerating the cost of implementation to sway public opinion and government action against a path toward implementation of SORNA. California is a perfect example. One person in that state stands in the way of implementation. That needs to change.

Additionally, SORNA does not require duplication of ongoing State registration efforts—in fact ADAM WALSH specifically addresses there should be no duplication of efforts. Jurisdictions must look to see where information already exists—regardless if that is within their jurisdiction or another. DNA collected once by another jurisdiction does not then need to be recollected by a second jurisdiction–rather a simple linking to the records located elsewhere is sufficient.

While leading the SMART Office, I encouraged jurisdictions to be creative and use their scarce resources to redirect monies to more effectively monitor and track sex offenders. In speaking with jurisdictions I constantly encouraged novel approaches to implementation of SORNA—sharing of equipment to achieve the minimum standards of SORNA—for example, rather than purchasing digital finger and palm print machines, use those already present in the jurisdiction in use by another law enforcement facility. While some jurisdictions complain about the minimum requirements of SORNA, they ignore the significant flexibility that is provided for by the law. For example, nothing in SORNA requires that all registration activities occur in a single location. If necessary registration equipment is present in a jurisdiction at a location other than the registration site, then requiring sex offenders to visit multiple local locations to perfect a registration is perfectly acceptable. Individuals can have great negative or positive impact on the implementation process.

Communication between jurisdictions is mandatory—while at the SMART Office we implemented a secure communication system for all sex offender registry systems. We created and implemented a Tribal and Territory registry so that all remaining jurisdictions could utilize the communication system to enhance the national sharing of information. Make no mistake, these multimillion dollar systems were given to all registration jurisdictions—free of charge.

SORNA needs your support. The SMART Office has been fighting an uphill battle since the day its doors were opened in 2006—a battle for everything from adequate staffing to sufficient funding. In 2008, Congress provided a mere $4 million dollars to the COPS Office for sexual predator elimination activities and $850,000 for the national sex offender public website. You would think that this money would have easily found its way to the SMART Office. It did not. Congress has never directly appropriated any funds to the SMART Office for the important work that it does.

Support for the SMART Office does not seem to be increasing under the new administration. The SMART Office was the sole office for which an acting director was not appointed during the transition period. Future financial support for SORNA implementation is unsure.

Let me address the public relations battle we are up against. The Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Justice under the Bush administration never defended the Adam Walsh Act. Not only did they not defend it—-which should have been easy—-they prevented me and others from going on television and radio, to educate the public about the benefits of the Act. I can not tell you how many times I went to the communications office, asking, begging to be allowed to write articles, respond to blatantly wrong papers and statements regarding SORNA and sex offender registration. I was repeatedly turned down—prohibited from fighting back.

My friends, we are at a fork in the road –and we may lose the battle. The voice of the Surviving Parents Coalition is strong. I urge you to use your voice—to go up on the Hill and force our representatives to stick with the policies of the ADAM WALSH ACT. Tell Senator Leahy to ignore those who are urging him to gut it. Tell him, and others, that registration should be mandatory, that risk assessments are pure guesswork.

And ask yourself, if this law is gutted and changed as those who are soft on sex offenders desire, when this group gathers again next year, how much bigger of a room will be needed to hold all of the newly initiated members because Congress decided to walk away from mandatory sex offender registration.

Thank you. God bless you and the United States of America.


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