Congress Must Act Now to Stop Sex Offenders

Members of Congress often justify their actions as being “for the children.” So why is it proving so difficult to get them to fully fund the sex offender registry and notification system they created two years ago under the Adam Walsh Act?

This one really is for the children.

Keeping track of convicted sex offenders is a crucial part of our strategy to protect kids and vulnerable adults. Until recently, though, the law was an unworkable patchwork. Though all of the states had offender databases, the data they collected was haphazard and their classifications of offenses were wildly inconsistent. Information-sharing between the states and territories with federal law enforcers was difficult, and federally recognized Indian tribal jurisdictions weren’t even part of any national program at all.

The result: More than 100,000 convicted sex offenders were officially “missing.” No one knew where they were. Parents had no reliable way to know if a convicted sex offender lived next door, and childcare providers and schools couldn’t screen out convicted abusers.

Something had to change, and it finally did in 2006, after a spate of high-profile crimes against children by registered sex offenders pushed the issue onto the national stage.

“America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh, whose 6-year-old son Adam was abducted and murdered in 1981, spearheaded the effort to bring consistency to the law. The result was the Adam Walsh Act, which created the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART). The office is responsible for coordinating sex offender tracking nationwide, providing technical assistance to the states, territories and federally recognized Indian tribes, and assisting all parties to meet the law’s minimum standards.

Most crime is handled at the state and local levels, as it should be. But there is an appropriate national role in the coordination of certain efforts to combat interstate crime and related problems. The tracking of convicted sex offenders (who move from state to state) is one of those areas where the federal government should play a leading role in coordinating state and federal efforts. And that’s just getting underway now.

At the federal level, SMART has been busy issuing detailed guidelines for the jurisdictions to help implement and develop new software tools to keep track of offenders, as well as build a national information-sharing system to tie everything together. To get promised federal funding, states, territories and tribes have to bring their existing laws into line with the new standards and, in some cases, radically rework their registration and tracking systems. This work is ongoing; the law demands substantial compliance by July 27, 2009.

Congress required much under the Act, but has done little to provide the promised funding. States, territories and some tribes that miss the deadline stand to lose 10 percent of their federal money under the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which they use to pay for interstate task forces and special investigations. But Congress cut Byrne grants by two-thirds this year, so that’s no longer much of a stick. Some states are seriously considering delaying implementation of the Adam Walsh Act, or skipping it altogether, at least until financial conditions change.

There’s no carrot to coax the states into compliance, either. Back in 2006, Congress promised that it would help offset the cost of implementing the new rules and provide big bonuses for beating the 2009 deadline. The funding that’s come through, however, has been just a trickle, not nearly enough to meet the requirements under the law.

Congress has also fallen short in providing money for federal law enforcers to carry out their responsibilities under the Adam Walsh Act, such as hunting down, arresting and prosecuting unregistered sex offenders. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 350 new deputy marshals are needed to get the job done, at a cost of $220 million over five years. So far, Congress has come forward with nowhere near that amount.

Blame bad priorities. The 2008 congressional budget has nearly 12,000 pork-barrel earmarks worth nearly $17 billion. Skimping on efforts to protect children and vulnerable adults from sex offenders demonstrates that Congress still hasn’t gotten the message.

John Walsh was right when, just after the signing of the law named for his murdered son, he observed, “Legislation without the resources to back it up is nothing more than a photo op.”

Adam Walsh, and all of our citizens, deserve better.

Charles D. Stimson is Senior Legal Fellow and Andrew M. Grossman is Senior Legal Policy Analyst at the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. As a prosecutor since 1993, Mr. Stimson has long had a professional interest in sex offender management. While he is proud to acknowledge that his wife is the Director of the SMART Office, the views expressed here are those of the authors.

Charles "Cully" Stimson is a widely recognized expert in national security, homeland security and crime control. A senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation since 2007, Stimson became manager of the National Security Law Program in Heritage's Davis Institute for International Studies in April 2013 after serving as Heritage's chief of staff for a year.