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False Sense of Security: The Real Cost And Benefits Of The Adam Walsh Act

The Adam Walsh Act (AWA) was enacted by Congress in 2006 with much fanfare. Proponents argued that the law, which requires the establishment of a national sex offender registry, would help protect children from predators. But according to a recent report from the Justice Policy Institute, the AWA has actually had the opposite effect.

The AWA is the latest effort by lawmakers to “get tough” on sex offenders. The AWA expands registration requirements to more offenses, applies retroactively to offenders convicted before its enactment, increases the amount of information about offenders on registries, requires offenders to post their picture online and makes an offender’s failure to comply a crime punishable by at least a year imprisonment.

But who is the law really protecting children from? The vast majority of all sex offenses in the United States are committed by individuals who know the victim; only seven percent are committed by strangers. On top of that, most who commit sex offenses are first time offenders, which means they are not on a registry to begin with.

What good are registries then? Not much. If you are politician, they make it seem like you are doing something about child predators. But if you are parent, they provide a false sense of security-you can’t just visit a website to see if your child is in danger.

Moreover, due to the sweeping nature of the AWA, children as young as 14 are subject to registration for certain crimes. Take the now famous case of Genarlow Wilson, a l7-year-old convicted of having consensual oral sex with a fif-teen year old girl at a party. Wilson was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation and sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Wilson was released from prison in 2007 at the age of 21, but only after the Georgia Supreme Court declared his sentence “cruel and unusual punishment.”

It is no wonder then that the Justice Policy Institute concluded that the AWA “needlessly targets children and families” and “undermines rehabilitation” of juvenile offenders.

Aside from the human cost of the law, the AWA imposes real financial burdens on already cash strapped states. Ac-cording to estimates from the Justice Policy Institute, it will cost states millions of dollars to implement the AWA in 2009. States that fail to comply face losing a percentage of federal money provided each year for state criminal justice pro-grams. It is cheaper, though, for states to lose this money rather than comply with the AWA. In California, for instance, the cost for complying with the AWA in 2009 is estimated at $59,287,816. The amount of funds lost for noncompliance total only $2,187,682.

Given the questionable benefits of the AWA, the Justice Policy Institute recommends states forego compliance with the AWA and instead opt for the adoption of real, “proactive strategies” to reduce sexual violence, such as better training for teachers, social workers and parents to help prevent and identify sexual abuse. Additionally, underage offenders should not be listed on registries, the Institute concluded, because young offenders are not likely to reoffend, and because listing interferes with their rehabilitation.

Source: Registering Harm: A Briefing Book on the Adam Walsh Act by the Justice Policy Institute. It is available on PLN’s website.

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