The history of legislation for protection against sexual predators is relatively new. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides the following information:
Prior to 1994 few states required convicted sex offenders to register their addresses with local law enforcement. As recognition of the severity of this problem grew, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Act, 42 U.S.C. §§14071, et seq. (“Wetterling Act”). This requires state implementation of a sex-offender registration program or a 10 percent forfeiture of federal funds for state and local law enforcement under the Byrne Grant Program of the U.S. Department of Justice. Today, all fifty states and Washington, D.C. have sex offender registries.
The realization registration alone was not enough came after the tragic murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a released sex offender living on her street. The public outcry created a call for programs to provide the public with information regarding released sex offenders. In 1996 Congress passed a federal law mandating state community notification programs. Megan’s Law, section (e) of the Wetterling Act, requires all states to conduct community notification but does not set out specific forms and methods, other than requiring the creation of internet sites containing state sex-offender information. Beyond that requirement, states are given broad discretion in creating their own policies.
There are currently more than half a million registered sex offenders in the United States. Sex offenders pose an enormous challenge for policy makers: they evoke unparalleled fear among constituents; their offenses are associated with a great risk of psychological harm; and most of their victims are children and youth. As policy makers address the issue of sex offenders, they are confronted with some basic realities
- Most sex offenders are not in prison, and those who are tend to serve limited sentences
- Most sex offenders are largely unknown to people in the community
- Sex offenders have a high risk of re-offending
- While community supervision and oversight is widely recognized as essential, the system for providing such supervision is overwhelmed
Loopholes in Current State Programs
Despite states’ implementation of the Jacob Wetterling Act, the increased mobility of our society has led to “lost” sex offenders. The “lost” are those who fail to comply with registration duties yet remain undetected due to the inconsistencies among state laws, coupled with the burden faced by authorities to keep track of the increasing number of offenders.
The U.S. Congress recognized this problem and acted. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was signed into law on July 27, 2006. This sweeping new law mandates specific registration requirements for sex offenders in all states. Once all the states come into compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, within three years, the disparities among the state registration laws will be eliminated and sex offenders will no longer be able to slip through the cracks in the system.
In addition, the Adam Walsh Act mandates that specified information about sex offenders must be released to the public. Each state must create a publicly accessible and searchable website that provides consistent information about the offenders in its registry. This will create a better tool for the public in their efforts to protect themselves from sex offenders living in their communities.
It is critical that Sexual Assault Crisis Centers offer services that empower victims and their families. Court Advocates must have an awareness of the current legislation to help educate victims. While advocates should never provide legal advice, understanding legislative trends and encouraging victims and their families to obtain knowledge is just one level of good advocacy. As a nation we must continue to explore and encourage victims and their families to become involved in legislative advocacy to make sure that their voices are heard.