Law enforcement admits there are many problems with the registration of sex offenders. First off, not all of them register. And the ones who do are hard to track.

But would taking some of the low-risk offenders -- like the 19-year-old who had sex with his willing but underage girlfriend -- off the registration list allow law enforcement to better focus on violent offenders who deserve more attention? Or would it mean less attention on individuals who could become dangerous offenders if not watched?

Lawmakers in Texas' 79th legislative session wrangled with these same questions in 2005 and passed two laws that, combined, could pave the way for deregistration of some sex offenders who are eligible under federal law. HB 2036 charged the Council on Sex Offender Treatment to start a pilot program to research what deregistration would mean for law enforcement, the public and the offenders, as well as determine the risk of certain offenders to the community. HB 867 allowed for the deregistration of certain sex offenders after the council's research has been completed.

But deregistration requirements developed by Texas would now have to comply with a new federal law that's still being defined. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which was passed in July 2006, would establish a national registry with three tiers to categorize sex offenders -- two of which could lend themselves to deregistration under federal law. At press time, the act was awaiting an opinion from U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who by law is required to issue guidelines and regulations to interpret and implement the legislation.

"Once the federal legislation was signed, that took us back a little bit," said Allison Taylor, executive director of the Council on Sex Offender Treatment. "We're waiting on Alberto Gonzales' opinion as to what tools would be used to deregister and if that would be nonpublic registration."

Under the Adam Walsh Act, a tier-one sex offender (the least offensive) would be granted deregistration after 15 years if the offender keeps a clean record and has completed sex offender treatment. Tier-two offenders may petition for deregistration after 25 years if their record is clear of subsequent offenses and they've undergone offender treatment. Tier three requires a mandatory life registration with no potential for deregistration.

Taylor said deregistration would operate based on risk-assessment. "It means you allocate the funds and resources to your most dangerous population," she said. "That's what we're looking into; which tools we will use to potentially, now under federal law, be able to deregister people."

 

A Convoluted List
One argument for deregistration is that the registry has become convoluted. The list is littered with outdated addresses of offenders, according to an Austin American-Statesman report, and offenders disappear by either failing to register or by providing incorrect information.

"The registry has the 19-year-old kid who had willing but [legally] nonconsensual sex with his girlfriend mixed in with the 48-year-old pedophile, which is not a good use of law enforcement resources to be running around chasing the kid who made a really bad mistake but got caught up in the system," Taylor said. "He's truly not a sex offender."

The problem of sexual abuse has reached alarming proportions, Taylor said, adding that one in three girls and one in five boys is sexually abused. She said perpetrators involved in sex crimes are apprehended more quickly if they are in the registry. A number of offenders, however, escape conviction or their crimes go unreported.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor