The overarching goal of creating centralized registries of convicted sex offenders is to enhance public safety through multiple processes. For example, because these registries contain identifying information and offense summary data about sex offenders residing in a particular jurisdiction, the investigation of sex crimes can be facilitated and enhanced. Law enforcement officials and other criminal justice agents can utilize registry data to narrow the focus of investigations, compare forensic evidence, and identify potential suspects with similar crime patterns. In addition, registries are designed to make sex offenders more visible to community members who, when they access or receive information about registered sex offenders living in their communities, may take increased protective steps. Sex offender registration is also believed to play a role in deterrence, as sex offenders are acutely aware of the increased visibility and scrutiny by the criminal justice system and the public at large. Finally, for individuals who have either not engaged in sex offending behaviors, or who have thus far gone undetected, the idea of being placed on a public registry may also have a deterrent effect.
In order to meet these and other goals, jurisdictions must ensure that the following elements are in place:
- Policies and procedures are clear and understood;
- Registry information is current and accurate; and
- Ongoing registration efforts are coordinated and collaborative.
Unlike the considerable latitude that agencies and entities have with respect to implementing core sex offender management strategies such as treatment and supervision, the approach to sex offender registration is firmly established by statutes at the federal and state levels. Therefore, the key to effective implementation and utilization of sex offender registries is ensuring that the associated policies are clear, comprehensive in scope, and well understood by those with a role and a stake in the process. This requires that staff are well–trained in the specific statutory requirements, agency policies, and specific procedures regarding the registration process, and that quality assurance or other monitoring practices are in place to ensure adherence to these procedures.
Of primary importance is the intended applicability of sex offender registration policies. Some state statutes expressly indicate that registration is intended only for adult sex offenders, while other laws explicitly include juveniles adjudicated within the juvenile courts, waived to adult courts, or both (CSOM, 1999; Garfinkle, 2003; Szymanski, 2003b). Still other statutes are silent on the applicability of registration to juveniles (CSOM, 1999; Garfinkle, 2003; Szymanski, 2003b). In addition, the specific types of crimes that qualify for registration must be defined, whether limited only to sex offenses as defined within criminal codes or including other crimes that may have an underlying sexual component or similar motivation (e.g., kidnapping, forcible confinement, aggravated assault, abuse of a child). It is also important that policies outline the respective responsibilities of the various agencies or individuals that have a role in sex offender registration.
Policies must also specify the type of information that is to be collected for sex offender registries. This varies to some degree across states, but typically includes names and aliases of sex offenders, dates and types of convictions, last known addresses, law enforcement identification numbers, photographs, and fingerprints. Some states also include employment information, vehicle registration, and blood samples for DNA analysis (Adams, 2002; CSOM, 1999). The recent enactment of the Adam Walsh Act is likely to promote increased consistency with respect to collecting registry data throughout the country. Similarly, the implementation of the National Sex Offender Registry, which provides law enforcement officials with greater access to cross–state registration information, may increase the consistency of sex offender registry data.
Ideally, registration statutes and agency policies specifically outline expected protocols for ensuring that incarcerated sex offenders are informed of the applicable registration requirements prior to their release or that allow the registration process to be initiated prior to release. In these instances, procedures must take into account documentation and record–keeping, including documentation that the offender was notified of and understood the registration requirements. For sex offenders who are placed directly under supervision with no period of incarceration, policies should outline the process by which they are required to register, and the role that court officers or community supervision officers will have in ensuring that offenders comply with registration following sentencing or disposition.
Also important to explicate in statutes is the duration of registration requirements (e.g., 10 years, lifetime). This may vary based on whether an adult or juvenile is the subject of the registration process, the crimes of conviction, or tiered classification systems. For example, for states implementing the provisions of the Adam Walsh Act, minimum registration requirements are prescribed based upon a three–tiered system, with registration durations ranging from 15 years to life. In jurisdictions that use a tiered system for registration, it may be beneficial for procedures to specify the inclusion of an empirically–validated sex offender–specific actuarial risk assessment tool (e.g., RRASOR, STATIC–99) to provide an informed foundation for risk management decisions. When the duration of registration responsibilities is finite (either because of statutory limitations on duration, or because a court issues an order for relief from registration), policies and procedures should outline the process for inactivating records and/or removing the names from public registries.
Collecting registry information at the point of initial registration requires a significant amount of staff time and resources, but it may not be the most significant challenge facing jurisdictions with respect to sex offender registration.
Rather, maintaining accurate and up–to–date registry information is perhaps the most difficult aspect. Most statutes clarify offenders’ requirements for notifying relevant law enforcement or criminal justice agencies of any address changes, and many policies require sex offenders to present themselves to local law enforcement agencies at routine intervals (e.g., annually) in order to verify that all information is current and to update the offender’s photograph. Within the Adam Walsh Act, for example, provisions mandate sex offenders to appear in person for routine registration verification purposes (i.e., every 3 months, 6 months, or year) based on their tier classification. However, because these expectations are dependent upon the offenders themselves, the assurance of accurate and current registry information is not guaranteed. Therefore, many jurisdictions have implemented requirements for law enforcement and other agencies to take active steps to update and verify registry information on an ongoing basis (e.g., some states now require law enforcement agencies to conduct routine in–person address verifications by going door–to–door), which often requires significant fieldwork, manpower, and resources.
With the growing number of sex offenders entering the criminal justice system, verifying and updating addresses and other registry information is likely to become even more time, staff, and resource intensive. Because accurate information is vital to the integrity of registries, a formal verification process must be established and should include the following:
- Types of information that must be updated or verified;
- Agency or agencies responsible for these verifications;
- Specific timeframes and frequencies expected for verifications;
- Methods by which verification must occur;
- Requirements for forwarding updates or changes in registration information to the designated state law enforcement agency, and on to the national registry; and
- Penalties for offenders’ failure to verify or update registry information.
It is common for multiple agencies to be involved with the sex offender registration process, particularly as offenders move through various stages of the criminal or juvenile justice process (Adams, 2002; CSOM, 1999). As such, sex offender registration has the potential to be most effective in those jurisdictions where collaboration and coordination exist among the sentencing courts, corrections departments, state and local law enforcement, and community supervision agencies. Strong working relationships can bring these agencies together to ensure that complete registry information is collected, duplication of effort is minimized, and capacity for initial registration and ongoing verification processes is enhanced. The law enforcement officers who are charged with the responsibility for registration will ideally work in concert with others in the community (e.g., supervision officers) who are active in the monitoring of those sex offenders under supervision.
Formalized partnerships between law enforcement and supervision and corrections agencies may provide an ideal means of managing the initial and ongoing registration process. For example, jurisdictions may wish to explore collaborations between law enforcement and corrections agencies to allow institutional caseworkers to initiate or facilitate the registration process with incarcerated sex offenders prior to release from the institution. Similarly, because supervision officers are generally expected to conduct home visits and other field contacts with sex offenders, they can verify addresses of sex offenders under supervision and communicate those verifications formally to law enforcement officials. And through partnerships with volunteer programs, law enforcement agencies can receive administrative assistance with registration processes (e.g., organizing and filing paperwork associated with registration, updating databases), distributing community notification materials, developing and disseminating educational materials, and conducting address verifications (i.e., through auxiliary officers) (see IACP, 2006). Depending upon agencies’ statutory mandates pertaining to registration and verification processes, efforts to implement these and other types of collaborative approaches may require attention at the policy level.