Ten years after the Adam Walsh Act: what does it mean for those accused of sex crimes?
Review of the Act's Legacy
Ten years after the passage of the Adam Walsh Act, communities across the country are still struggling to implement its broad, and sometimes onerous, reporting requirements. After the tragedy which befell the young by after which the Act was named, attention turned not only to punishing those who actually hurt children, but also imposing reporting requirements of those convicted of much lesser offenses. The Act establishes three tiers of varying reporting requirements, under which certain persons must inform authorities of their whereabouts and other personal information. Ten years later, this reporting system remains inconclusive in its efficacy, and public knowledge about sex crimes and related matters remains low.
Background to the Act
Adam Walsh was a young boy who was abducted at the age of six in 1981, and never seen alive again. The deeply troubling circumstances of his disappearance, and eventual discovery of his body, gripped the nation with panicked fervor. How could anyone hurt a child? Walsh's father, John, went on to serve as an advocate for legal reform, efforts which ultimately led to the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, introduced to Congress in 2005 and signed by President Bush in 2006. Although laws already existed punishing the gross crimes of murder, aggravated assault, and kidnapping, the Act's main focus was something different.
New Reporting Requirements
The Adam Walsh Act, also called SORNA (Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act), did not create a federal sex offender registry directly, but imposed requirements on the states to do so themselves. Sex offender registries existed in the past under the Jacob Wetterling sex offender registry of the 90s, but it was a patchwork system that had no baseline requirements. The Adam Walsh Act changed that by tying important grant money to states' compliance with its new baseline provisions, including its three-tiered system. The Act also created a new felony offense: failing to register under the Act's provisions.
Tier I, Tier II, Tier III
Depending on the severity of the offense, individuals are grouped into three different tiers, each with its own reporting requirements:
Tier I: A "catch all" category, which requires annual registration for 15 years
Tier II: More serious, individuals in this class must register twice a year for 25 years
Tier III: The most serious, this tier requires reporting every three months for life
At a minimum, any affected individual must provide the registering authority with his or her name, social security number, home address, work address, school address, license plate number, and a description of his or her car. As digital technology develops, states are also requiring additional information such as email addresses, cell phone numbers, passport numbers, etc.
If an individual is homeless, he must still report the general vicinity where he lives. And if he will be traveling for more than seven days, he must also report so the foreign jurisdiction can be notified.
Does Reporting Work?
But what is the purpose of these reporting requirements? Does society care if people's lives are severely limited, as long as those people are presumed to be "bad people"? Does reporting actually keep communities safer? Misinformation about the Act, and sex offender registries in general, abounds. Most people have no idea that registration requirements are often imposed on people for childhood indiscretions, or public lewd behavior caused by drunken revelry rather than dangerous sexual proclivities.
Critics also argue that the Act's registration requirements are overly taxing on local authorities, who must process the mountain of paperwork the Act contemplates. Those who work closely with the law also find its broad-brush approach to be unfairly overbroad, to say nothing of the law's vagueness and potential for unequal application. All these years later, a majority of states are still not in compliance, due to both justice concerns, and costs which outweigh the money forfeited by the law.
Have You Been Charged with a Sex Crime?
Amidst all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: the Act has doubled down on the consequences for sex offenders. Public perception of those convicted of a sex crime against a child has heightened to record levels. For those who are facing sex crimes charges, the reality is they are staring down a barrel of decades of reporting requirements, great restrictions on where they can live and work, and a scarlet letter attached to their reputation for life. If you have been charged with a sex crime, contact a skilled attorney immediately.
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