By Renee C. Lee
Six years after a bill establishing a national sex offender registry was signed into law, Texas is among five heavily populated states not participating, citing high costs to implement the program.
Nearly three dozen states have failed to meet all the conditions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act because of concerns about how it works and how much it would cost. Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, California and Nebraska have opted out of the national registry completely.
With the deadline long past — states were to comply by July 2011 — Texas officials are willing to risk losing about $1.4 million in grant money that would help local agencies enforce the law.
- Grant money or bribe money?
State lawmakers say the federal funding falls far short of the estimated $38 million needed to modify the state's existing program in order to participate.
Members of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee made the decision following an interim meeting two years ago after hearing testimony from law enforcement officials.
“We couldn't afford the national program,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “The local law enforcement doesn't have the money and the state doesn't have the money.”
Others argue the risk to Texas children outweighs the additional cost.
- That is easy to say when it's not your own money. So if you are so concerned, why don't you donate your own time and money?
“I think it's ridiculous,” said Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio. “All of the hard work that some of us are trying to do to protect our children, to keep them safe from being sexually assaulted. And here we go again, where the Republicans, so they don't have to raise taxes or any type of revenue, have decided not to participate in this program on the backs of our children. I'm disappointed and I'm upset about it.”
- Are you really trying to "protect" children or your own career and reputation? And it's politics as usual, blame the Republicans or someone else.
Uresti rejected the argument that $38 million was too much for the state to spend to bring its sex offender database into compliance with federal law.
The penalty for not complying is 10 percent of Byrne grant funds, provided to law enforcement agencies for various crime prevention efforts.
The states that have decided to not honor the law still may reapply for withheld money. Twenty-nine other states that are in partial compliance have asked to have their withheld money released to help them meet conditions of the law.
Named for the son of “America's Most Wanted” host John Walsh, who was kidnapped from a Florida mall and killed in 1981, the law was supposed to create a uniform system for registering and tracking convicted sex offenders. Soon after President George W. Bush signed it however, many states realized they would have to overhaul their sex offender registration programs to comply.
- It was never proven that Adam was killed by a known or unknown sex offender, or even if he was sexually assaulted, yet they assume that to be true. He was murdered by a sick individual, who they "claim" was Ottis Toole, but there is no real proof of that either. So here we have a law passed on assumptions, not real facts, like most laws these days. Punish all ex-sex offenders due to what "one" murderer did? That is like punishing all thieves for something a DUI offender did, yeah, doesn't make sense.
States were required to comply by 2009, but the U.S. attorney general gave states an extension to 2011 after many objected to a requirement that all juveniles 14 and older who had committed aggravated sexual assaults register for 25 years.
About 70,000 sex offenders were registered in Texas as of August, according to the state's Department of Criminal Justice.
Texas juveniles are required to register for 10 years after they leave the juvenile system. The state, however, gives judges discretion to waive or remove a juvenile from the register. They also can defer a decision until after the juvenile successfully completes therapy. Those options would be removed under the federal law.
The law also categorizes offenders by crime and not by the risk they pose.
To comply, Texas would have to add certain offenses that require registration under the federal law. The state also would have to eliminate its use assessment to determine each offender's risk to the community. Offenders are registered as either low, moderate or high risk.
Allison Taylor, executive director of the Council on Sex Offender Treatment, testified that Texas has been working to narrow the sex offender registry to dangerous sex offenders and the federal law would undo this work.
Proponents of the federal law had hoped it would ease the risk that states with less-stringent registration would become havens for sex offenders.
Whitmire said the state's system is effective, but lawmakers will need to figure out how to ensure that only the most dangerous offenders are on it. Many offenders are registered because they had consensual sex with a minor, he said. In Texas, the age of sexual consent is 17.
Texas lawmakers also should consider repealing language that prohibits de-registering low-risk offenders, he said. Adult offenders are required to register for life.
Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the state made the right choice to ignore federal law. She said Texas probably is one of the toughest states on sexual offenders, so there's no need to waste money changing the system.