Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006

Convicted sex offenders who are either paroled from correctional facilities or successfully released from required treatment at a psychiatric facility are subject to several forms of community supervision as they attempt to reintegrate into society. State and federal legislation has created various forms of postrelease surveillance that formerly convicted sex offenders are subjected to, such as sex offender registries, community notification systems, residency restrictions, community exclusion zones, and even Global Positioning System monitoring. While local and state-level criminal registration laws date back to the 1930s, the role of federal legislation in sex offender registration can be traced to the 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act, which commanded all 50 states to require anyone convicted of a sex offense to register his or her current residential and employment information with law enforcement agencies for monitoring. The Wetterling Act was later amended to include Megan’s Law in 1996, after the sexual molestation and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka at the hands of her neighbor, who was a twice-convicted sex offender. Megan’s law mandated that police agencies notify communities of the sex offenders living near them by publicly providing the offenders’ names and residential addresses. A crucial moment in federal involvement in sex offender registration and notification systems emerged with the passage of the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA), which repealed the registration and notification requirements of the Wetterling Act, and its amendments, to replace them with a new set of standards aimed at providing a more inclusive system of sex offender surveillance with the goal of enhancing public safety. However, many concerns have emerged with regard to the AWA’s effectiveness and its implementation. The remainder of this entry explains the three tiers, and their nuances, of the AWA classification system for sex offenders; describes the territories and categories in which AWA applies; and provides a brief review of potential unintended consequences of the AWA registration requirements.

Title I of the AWA is the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which requires states to standardize their registration and community notification practices via a federal classification tier system for sex offenders. Under this uniform, three-tier classification system, sex offenders must provide more extensive registration information, make periodic in-person appearances to confirm and update their registration information, and are assigned a minimum period of time when they are required to remain on the public Internet registries based on their tier classification. Tier 1 registrants are those offenders who committed misdemeanors or sexual-related crimes that resulted in the sanction of less than 1 year of imprisonment, and they must register for 15 years, with annual in-person updates where they confirm their address and provide a current photo. Tier 2 registrants are sex offenders who have attempted to commit or committed offenses against a minor, including sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, solicitation for the practice of prostitution, and the use of minors for the production or distribution of child pornography. Tier 2 offenders must be registered for 25 years and have their address and current photo verified through semiannual in-person updates. Tier 3 registrants are people who are found guilty of aggravated sexual abuse, abusive sexual contact with a youth under 13 years of age, or nonparental kidnapping of a minor. Tier 3 offenders must register for a lifetime and update their address and photo in person every 3 months.

The AWA also expanded the range of sexual offenses subject to mandatory registration, increased mandatory sentences for federal sex offenders, permitted their civil commitment, and required that DNA samples be collected and stored. Additionally, the act established retroactive provisions in which previously convicted or adjudicated sex offenders must register on conviction of a new crime regardless of whether the new offense was sexual in nature or not. Any state that does not comply with the new federal guidelines is subject to a 10% reduction in its Byrne/Justice Assistance grant funding for law enforcement.

The increasing federal role in sex offender surveillance has generated concerns about the weakening of jurisdictional autonomy, the inconsistency between the law and emerging evidence-based practices, and unfunded federal mandates. The existing research also reveals several unintended consequences of the new registration practices to sexual offenders, such as hindering employment and housing opportunities, severing supportive relationships, and subjecting them to harassment, vigilante justice, and social rejection due to public stigmatization. Finally, the extant research has failed to find that sex offender registration and notification are effective at reducing recidivism.

Brian G. Sellers and Elizabeth Fraysier

See also Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act ; Megan’s Law ; Sex Offender Laws ; Sex Offender Registries

Further Readings

Arrigo, Bruce, et al.Ethics of Total Confinement: A Critique of Madness, Citizenship, and Social Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Caldwell, Michael, et al. “An Examination of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act as Applied to Juveniles.” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, v.14/2 (2008).

Freeman, Naomi and Jeffrey Sandler. “The Adam Walsh Act: A False Sense of Security or an Effective Policy Initiative?” Criminal Justice Policy Review, v.21/1 (2010).

Harris, Andrew and Christopher Lobanov-Rostovsky. “Implementing the Adam Walsh Act’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Provisions: A Survey of the States.” Criminal Justice Policy Review, v.21/2 (2010).

Harris, Andrew, et al. “Widening the Net: The Effects of Transitioning to the Adam Walsh Act’s Federally Mandated Sex Offender Classification System.” Criminal Justice and Behavior, v.37/5 (2010).

Letourneau, Elizabeth and Michael Miner. “Juvenile Sex Offenders: A Case Against the Legal and Clinical Status Quo.” Sexual Abuse, v.17/2 (2005).