Nationwide, more than 700,000 convicted sex offenders have registered their whereabouts with local police. Every state has a sex offender registry of some kind.
But as many states face persistent budget shortfalls, it's become a real question how well law enforcement can keep track of such a large caseload.
"Sometimes federal mandates and state laws get passed without a real sense of what the lingering costs are," says Suzanne Brown-McBride, deputy director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department proposed significant changes to the registration requirements states must meet under the Adam Walsh Act, a 2006 law that was meant to ensure that offender registries across the country adhere to similar standards. Only three states — Ohio, Delaware and Florida — are in compliance. Many of the rest say it imposes costs that are too high for them to bear.
Even some advocates for harsher penalties for sex crimes worry that states will not devote the resources needed to keep track of so many offenders, often for life.
"It's the worst it's ever been because of the economic crisis," says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which estimates 100,000 sex offenders are not even currently registered with states. "Our argument lies not in throwing up your hands and saying we can't do this. The answer lies in triage — deciding who represents the greatest risk."
Incarceration's High Cost
The greatest expense, of course, is incarceration. Sex criminals, along with drug offenders, are the fastest-growing part of prison populations, Allen says. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not overstepped its authority in the Adam Walsh Act by allowing federal prisons to hold "sexually dangerous" inmates after their sentences are completed.
The California legislature is currently considering a bill, known as Chelsea's Law, which would allow for life sentences for more categories of sex offenders and lifetime parole for others. The bill has the backing of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and could pass the State Assembly as early as next week.
But state officials have warned that the cost of implementing Chelsea's Law will be high as the lengthier sentences play out. An analysis by the state corrections department found the law would cost $1 million in 2015 but $54 million by 2030. The California Legislative Analyst's Office says costs will run much higher, "at least a few tens of millions of dollars annually within the next decade" and hundreds of millions annually in decades to come.
California's budget shortfall currently stands at $19 billion and the corrections budget is already under deep stress. The state is releasing 6,500 prisoners early this year in part to save money. California is under court order to release 40,000 prisoners over the next two years, and perhaps many more over three years, because of overcrowding.
But Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, the Republican sponsor of Chelsea's Law, disputes the LAO's higher cost estimates for his bill and says that even the corrections department's projected $54 million cost in 2030 would represent a small fraction of the projected state budget and "can be absorbed.
"I disagree with the criticism that I hear that the costs are too high," he says. "It's absolutely not asking too much of government to protect children from violent sex predators."
An Expanding List
At the same time, states have come under some criticism for requiring registration and community notification for an ever-expanding list of offenses — including public urination, "sexting" (minors sending nude pictures to each other via cell phones) and "Romeo and Juliet" cases involving older teens who had consensual sex with younger ones.
The argument from some advocacy groups holds that there are twin dangers associated with registration lists that contain thousands of petty criminals: They are too long to track effectively and can allow the worst offenders to slip through the cracks.
But purging the lists of minor offenders would not necessarily make them more manageable, says Roxanne Lieb, director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
"Sometimes there's discussion about sexting and Romeo and Juliet, but you're talking about tiny numbers," she says. "It would still be a huge number to monitor. It's not going to solve the problem of too many people to watch and keep track of in any way."
Can States Bear The Cost?
Still, even proponents of harsher penalties increasingly say there's value in laws that recognize some sex offenders require more oversight than others.
"In criminal justice, there are people who you're mad at and there are people you're afraid of," says Fletcher, the California representative. "All of our focus is on people we feel are likely to reoffend."
Yet the trend in most states has been to differentiate less between various categories of offenders — moving away from "tiered" systems that imposed different notification requirements depending on the severity of the crime.
And it's the very fact that the Adam Walsh Act puts offenders into three different tiers that has contributed to states' fear about the cost, suggests Alisa Klein, a public policy consultant with the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. The practical effect of the federal law would be to force states to put more offenders into the highest-risk category — leading to much greater administrative and enforcement costs.
The Justice Department's proposed changes would allow states more discretion about listing offenders as young as 14 on their registries, as well as offenders whose crimes predate the law's passage.
If states do not comply by July 26 — itself an extension of last year's deadline – they stand to lose 10 percent of their funding under a congressional grant program for law enforcement. But with only a couple of months left and few states on board, it appears that most are deciding the cost of compliance will be higher than the penalty.
"This federal mandate is requiring all kinds of things that financially are near to impossible for states to implement," Klein says. "In these incredibly difficult fiscal times, with states near bankruptcy, it is extraordinarily hard for them to come into compliance, just for financial reasons."
The question now is what sort of calculations states will make moving forward. Congress and state legislatures may have made bigger promises in protecting against sex offenders than they're willing to pay for, or that agencies may be able to deliver.
"What happens is the legislature has basically made a commitment to the citizens regarding how sex offenders will be managed and kept track of," says Lieb of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. "To the extent they're not able to fulfill those expectations, then it becomes grounds for disappointment and lawsuits and other financial consequences."