States Find SORNA Non-Compliance Cheaper

Many states have decided that not following a federal law regarding sex offender registration -- and taking a financial hit -- would be cheaper than implementing it.
by , | November 7, 2011

Congress passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act in 2006, which required states to implement new policies by July of this year or face a financial penalty for non-compliance. Only 15 states did, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Why?

Susan Frederick, senior federal affairs counsel for NCSL, tells Governing that many states discovered it would be cheaper to take the financial hit than implement the policy. Congress decided that states that failed to comply with SORNA would forfeit 10 percent of their Byrne Justice Assistance Grant starting in FY 2012. The block grant totaled about $250 million in FY 2011.

Full implementation is "labor-intensive," Frederick says. The law requires offenders to register regularly and in-person with authorities, usually local law enforcement, and they must give notice if they travel or move. Juveniles who perpetrated certain offenses must register for life; that requirement can be reduced to 25 years with a court order. And the policy must be applied retroactively to previously convicted offenders.

So, many states found "it's cheaper not to comply," Frederick says. New York was one such state. In a letter to Linda Baldwin, director of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking, Risa Sugarman, director of the state's Office of Sex Offender Management, said: "The costs would be far greater than the loss" of federal funding.

The state was set to receive about $16 million from the Byrne JAG fund this year, meaning it will lose $1.6 million, Janine Kava, spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, tells Governing. Sugarman wrote that the federal mandate to treat juvenile offenders the same as adults wasn't consistent with the state's own philosophy. She also asserted that the state's current policies for sex offender registration were sufficient for maintaining public safety.

"New York believes that our present laws and risk assessment method provide our citizens with effective protection against sexual predators," Sugarman said. The state "will continue its commitment to ensuring that our citizens are protected from sexual predators by the enforcement of all of our laws and the continued cooperation with your office."

Kava says New York has been notified by the SMART office that it can recover some of its lost funding by taking certain steps -- such as upgrading the state's sex offender registry's IT infrastructure to improve data collection and information sharing -- that meet some of SORNA's requirements. According to the final guidelines for SORNA compliance released by the office, funds will be returned to the non-compliant states "solely for the purpose of SORNA implementation."

The law is currently before Congress for reauthorization, and Frederick says NCSL is lobbying lawmakers to make improvements. Those include allowing flexibility in the frequency of sex offender notifications, giving states options in how they define juvenile offenders and allowing states to decide whether SORNA should be applied retroactively. The reauthorization bill is under consideration by the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

"No member of Congress wants to see a law fail," Frederick says. "There are people in Congress who recognize that some of the changes we suggest are not going to erode the law."

The map below denotes the states that have not fully implemented with SORNA.

View SORNA Implementation in a full screen map

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