Changes sought in federal sex offender act

Posted May 09, 2010, at 9:04 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine officials say the federal Adam Walsh law, which sets requirements for sex offender registries — including those for juvenile offenders — is unworkable and should be changed.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation are listening.

“It just does not work,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. “On our committee we have spent a lot of time trying to come up with a law that works for Maine, and Adam Walsh does not.”

Gerzofsky expects the state will seek another one-year extension to comply with the law but doubts the new Legislature elected in the fall will go along with the “draconian” provisions of the law that have been rejected by the current and past legislatures. Only one state, Ohio, has complied with the federal law.

“Congress should change the law and let the states do what works for that state,” Gerzofsky said. “We have looked at what it would cost to comply with the act and what we get under the Byrne grants and I just don’t think it is worth it.”

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Byrne grants provide funding to state and local police for a wide array of projects from equipment purchases to paying for special enforcement details.

Attorney General Janet T. Mills agreed with Gerzofsky and said many other attorneys general across the country have expressed concern about portions of the Adam Walsh law.

“All states have a great deal of difficulty imposing the very tough restrictions on juveniles that the act requires,” she said.

For example, the law requires a three-tier registry in which juveniles convicted of a single offense with another juvenile must register and regularly report their residence and other information — such as the make and model of their car and its license plate — for life.

“That is just one of the concerns,” Mills said.

The 2006 law is named for a 6-year-old Florida boy who was abducted at a department store in Florida in 1981. He was later found dead.

The law requires states to have lifetime registration for the most serious of offenders, such as those convicted of sexual abuse or aggravated sexual abuse; abusive sexual contact against a minor less than 13 years old; or an offense involving kidnapping of a minor.

But the laws and definitions of sex crimes vary greatly by state, and creating a registry based on the risk of a person offending would be very expensive, experts have told Maine lawmakers.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation say they are open to some changes in the law as urged by state officials, but none supports a total repeal of the law. There is agreement that serious sex offenders should be on a registry and be required to report where they live for a long period of time.

“I don’t think anyone disputes the goals of the Adam Walsh act,” U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in an interview. “But there are many states having a hard time, as is Maine, in complying with the law, and we should look at what the states are saying.”

She said other states are in the same position as Maine — that is, where state courts have ruled against portions of the sex offender registry laws. She said at a minimum Congress should consider giving the states more time to work through the complicated issues before facing the possibility of a reduction in federal assistance.

One common situation discussed by Maine lawmakers and those in other states is the 18-year-old college freshman with a 17-year-old girlfriend convicted of having sex and having to register for life as the result of one violation of law.

“Not that I condone that, but that is obviously very different from an adult preying on a child,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in an interview. “Those issues do need to be recognized and worked out, but I think it is important to remember that this law serves a very important purpose as far as protecting our children.”

She agreed with Snowe that Congress should at the least give the states more time to resolve issues through negotiations with the Justice Department before changing the law.

U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud said the fact that a large number of states are not in compliance with the law should be a clear message to Congress that it should consider making some changes.

“I really think that Congress will need to take a look at this and see where we can make changes that make sense,” the 2nd District Democrat said. “But I think everyone agrees we have to hold sex offenders accountable.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said she was not in Congress when the law was passed. She said it is becoming increasingly clear the law needs to be changed.

“I don’t think Maine should be punished for adhering to our own Constitution,” the 1st District Democrat said.

The state has until July 1 to apply for another waiver from the Justice Department. Mills thinks it will be granted. But as the law stands the state will face sanctions a year from July if it does not change its sex offender registry to comply with the Adam Walsh law or if Congress does not change provisions in the law.

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