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Tracking Sex Offenders: Federal Law, Resources Have Led to Marked Improvement of State Registries, But More Work Is Needed

A 2006 federal law drove all states to keep better track of sex offenders through enhanced technology and consistent practices, but some states are falling short of standards.
Date Published
November 13, 2020

Communities want to know when convicted sex offenders are living in their midst. For a quarter century, federal law has guaranteed communities the right to know. In 1994, Congress mandated that all states develop sex offender registries. Two years later, Megan’s Law provided that sex offender information must be made public.  

In the ensuing decade, sex offender laws and registries sprang up in all states — but not always with the full impact intended. In some instances, technology deficits limited information sharing across registries and jurisdictions, a synergy vital to tracking mobile offenders. Resource shortfalls strained states’ abilities to keep up with the growing volume of offenders required to register their presence, and with new types of identifying data for offenders. Jurisdictional inconsistency left a patchwork of programs, evidencing a need for national norms.

In 2006, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA). The AWA authorized the creation of a new Justice Department office, the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking, known as the SMART Office, within the Office of Justice Programs. Title I of the AWA is the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), enacted to redress those state-level asymmetries and deficiencies by creating comprehensive national standards for sex offender registration. The SMART Office oversees the implementation of SORNA.

The enactment of SORNA:

  • Broadened federal requirements for sex offender registration and notification (SORN) systems in states and other jurisdictions.
  • Expanded interstate enforcement through the U.S. Marshals Service.
  • Improved federally run information systems to both enhance information exchange between jurisdictions and expand public access to registrant information.

Recent research supported by the National Institute of Justice, in collaboration with the SMART Office, measured the states’ progress implementing SORNA, particularly in the areas of standards implementation and information sharing within and between states and with the federal government.

The research concluded that, overall, substantive improvements to the states’ SORN policies have brought disparate systems into closer alignment. According to the study, collectively those efforts have:

  • Produced greater consistency in data elements across systems. Common data elements reported by jurisdictions are court records (including supplemental conviction offense information such as victim age), address histories, and arrest information.
  • Captured more registrant information, with more registrant locations and activities.   
  • Strengthened registration requirements related to time frames for updating data, content verification frequency, length of registration, and noncompliance penalties.
  • Promoted more uniformity and consistency in public registry website information.

At the same time, a number of states were found to have fallen short in several areas, due in part to the rising number of offender registrations, from fewer than 600,000 in 2006 to over 900,000 in 2018. Three areas in particular were identified as posing ongoing challenges:

  • Resource and capacity needs in light of both the growing registrant population and expanded program demands.
  • State-level systemic barriers to implementation of some SORNA standards.
  • Demands from the field for dynamic and integrated information systems.

 

In the end, the researchers reported many states have run into barriers preventing them from substantially implementing all SORNA standards, due to resource constraints, incompatible state or local laws, a lack of requisite legislative will, or a combination of factors.

Broad Progress on Key Measures

Meeting SORN Policy Standards

The researchers found broad progress by the states in elevating their SORN policies to federal requirements. They examined each existing state policy against SORNA requirements in 14 substantive standards categories. A “standard determination” then established whether, for each SORNA requirement, the state policy complied with that requirement.

At least half the states met implementation thresholds for 13 of the 14 SORNA standard areas; 75% of the states met the thresholds for at least nine areas; and 92% of the states met them for at least half of the SORNA areas.

Enhancing Information Sharing

The researchers found that state sex offender registries have significantly evolved since SORNA’s 2006 enactment. “While many state representatives [for the study] described challenges associated with the introduction of new systems and the continuous expansion in the volume of registry data and activity, stakeholders with historical perspectives generally viewed their SORN systems as more robust, reliable, and effective than they were prior to SORNA’s passage,” the study report stated, noting advances in the following areas:

  • Technology. Of the 10 states involved in a case-study segment of the SORNA research, all have transitioned to more robust registry platforms, or invested in redesigned management systems, or both. All have enhanced their interface with the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website and the FBI’s National Sex Offender Registry.
  • Operations. SORNA implementation has spurred more consistent practices for managing sex offender relocation, as well as improved quality and consistency of information, within and across jurisdictions.
  • Culture. A “culture of information sharing” has emerged among all states in the sample, with constructive, established relationships among jurisdictions.
  • State investment. Investment in technology and operational improvements varied across states, but investments were independent of those states’ respective levels of compliance with SORNA standards.

Federal Support

The study underscored multiple ways the federal SMART Office and the U.S. Marshals Service have advanced state SORN initiatives. SMART provides grant support and technical assistance to jurisdictions, and functions as an enforcer of SORNA standards in the states. The research team found that many state stakeholders regarded SMART’s general approach as collaborative. The study found that SMART partnered with jurisdictions in advancing standards implementation consistent with each state’s unique circumstances. Regional and national training events staged by SMART, as well as the U.S. Marshals Service, fostered a cross-jurisdictional community of practice, the study report said.

Technology advances under the auspices of SMART include the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website, the Sex Offender Registration Tool, and the SORNA Exchange Portal.

Areas for Improvement

The SORN registrant population has risen steadily. Growth pressures are greatest in more populous states, the study found. SORN systems have also faced accelerated growth in the volume of administrative transactions, the researchers said. Further, stakeholders have reported a surge in operational activities such as interjurisdictional data exchange, enhanced compliance efforts, address verification, and tracking of absconders — individuals who are required to register or update their information but fail to do so.  

State and local law enforcement must balance these areas of demand for SORN resources with other public safety priorities, the researchers said. State SORN systems depend on supportive federal policies.

Implementation of Some SORNA Standards Constrained

Although three-quarters of all standard determinations met federal implementation thresholds, state progress toward implementation “has slowed considerably, and is likely approaching a point of stasis,” the study report cautioned. Most points of divergence with standards were the result of fixed barriers, such as legal barriers, legislative resistance, inconsistency between SORNA standards and state systems, and cost concerns. The researchers concluded that 14 years after SORNA’s enactment, many states have “reached an impasse” on further implementation that likely will require the attention of federal policymakers to resolve.

The researchers found significant variation in states’ SORN policies and systems. Thus, despite SORNA’s success in promoting consistency across systems, it has not proven to be a one-size-fits-all solution, the report said.

Successful state implementation of SORNA standards has tended to be modest and incremental. More extensive state policy changes have been far more difficult. The research report noted that other challenging areas were registration requirements related to juvenile offenses; difficulty classifying offenders; difficulty providing registration relief in appropriate cases; failure to meet public website requirements of SORNA (24 states had not met the standard); and difficulty applying SORNA requirements to certain offenses that predated registration statutes.

Continuing Data Access and Exchanges Challenges

Despite considerable SORN technology investments by the states since SORNA’s 2006 passage, stakeholders identified persistent information-sharing challenges. Many were linked to interjurisdictional transfer activity, the report noted.

Conclusion

Although study participants identified a need for federal resource infusions tailored to operational needs, there is a way forward. The research team identified core policy enhancement needs, including:

  • Advancement of the critical role of federal resources supporting state and interstate efforts, including SMART grant support and support for absconder enforcement by the U.S. Marshals Service.
  • A specific need for federal investments in technology meeting operational needs. Participants noted that amid growing resource demands, integrating disparate state SORN systems requires federal leadership in promoting shared technological solutions. 
  • Refinement of SORNA standards calibrated to advance interjurisdictional consistency while recognizing limits to standardization in different states.
  • Enhancement of the cross-jurisdictional SORN community of practice that has emerged with support of the SMART Office and the U.S. Marshals Service.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ grant 2014-AW-BX-K003, awarded to University of Massachusetts Lowell. The article is based on the report “Information Sharing and the Role of Sex Offender Registration and Notification” (2020), by Andrew J. Harris (principal investigator), Kimberly Kras (co-investigator), and Christopher Lobanov-Rostovsky (co-investigator). The team also produced an executive summary.

National Institute of Justice, "Tracking Sex Offenders: Federal Law, Resources Have Led to Marked Improvement of State Registries, But More Work Is Needed ," November 13, 2020, nij.ojp.gov:
https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/tracking-sex-offenders-federal-law-resources-have-led-marked-improvement-state
Date Created: November 13, 2020