State Implementation of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act

Published date01 June 2017
Date01 June 2017
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
State Implementation
of the Sex Offender
Registration and
Notification Act:
A Multidimensional Analysis
Andrew J. Harris
, Scott Walfield
Christopher Lobanov-Rostovsky
, and Michelle A. Cubellis
The 2006 Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), Title I of the
Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, established federal standards related to
the content and operation of sex offender registration and notification systems across
the United States. As of early 2017, over a decade following passage, 18 of 50 states
had been designated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) as having substantially
implemented SORNA—figures that might be initially interpreted as indicators of a
failed policy. Yet a closer analysis suggests that SORNA implementation is complex
and multifaceted and that viewing the policy’s “success” through such a binary prism
may be inherently limited. In this context, the current study offers a multidimensional
analysis of state-level SORNA implementation based on data abstracted from DOJ
records. Findings indicate that many aspects of SORNA have been universally or
widely implemented, that most states have adopted policies that are consistent with a
majority of SORNA standards, and that barriers to SORNA implementation are
concentrated among a limited subset of issues, notably those related to retroactive
application, registration of juveniles, and means of classifying registrants. Implications
for state and federal policy governing sex offender registration are discussed.
School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, MA, USA
East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, USA
Colorado Department of Public Safety, Denver, CO, USA
Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andrew J. Harris, School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell, 113
Wilder Street, Lowell, MA 01748, USA.
Justice Research and Policy
2017, Vol. 18(1) 24-47
ªThe Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1525107117745645
sex offender registration, sex offender management policy, Adam Walsh Act, sexual
violence policy
Since the 1990s, sex offender registration and notification (SORN) systems have
assumed an increasingly prominent place on both state and federal crime control
agendas in the United States. Among the states, SORN has emerged as a centerpiece
of contemporary sex offender management policy and practice, with all 50 states
operating independent sex offender registries and public websites to make registry
information available to the community. At the federal level, the U.S. Congress has
passed a sequence of laws, beginning with the 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against
Children Act, to improve the ability of law enforcement and the general public to
monitor sex offenders in the community and to enhance the quality, accessibility, and
cross-jurisdictional sharing of registry data. The Wetterling Act and its subsequent
amendments, while setting forth general requirements for state-level SORN systems,
nonetheless granted latitude to states in the design of these systems, producing a range
of interstate disparities.
The 2006 passage of the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act
(SORNA), also known as Title I of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act
(AWA), opened a new chapter in the evolution of the nation’s SORN systems.
SORNA emerged in part from the belief that variation in state registry systems created
loopholes that could be exploited by registrants seeking to evade monitoring. As a
result, among its many provisions designed to enhance intergovernmental and inter-
jurisdictional coordination and sharing of sex offender information, SORNA
expanded the scope of federal requirements related to the content and management
of SORN systems managed by the states, te rritories, and for the first time, tribal
jurisdictions across the United States. Along with these requirements, the AWA
established an office within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Office of Sex
Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehension, Registration, and Tracking
(SMART), and charged this office with promulgating SORNA guidelines and certify-
ing state-level implementation of these guidelines. The law set an initial deadline of
July 2009, with the possibility of two 1-year extensions, for states to either comply
with SORNA guidelines or risk losing 10%of their federal law enforcement Byrne/
Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) block grant funding.
In the years immediately following SORNA’s passage and the 2008 release of the
initial SORNA guidelines (U.S. DOJ, 2008), state-level compliance with SORNA
mandates appeared to be an elusive goal (Government Accountability Office [GAO],
2013). Despite a significant level of state legislative activity aimed at enhancing and
reforming sex offender registries (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2009),
states struggled to bring their systems in line with SORNA requirements, citing an
array of operational, legal, and fiscal challenges (Harris & Lobanov-Rostovsky,
2010). By the initial SORNA compliance deadline in July 2009, only one state (Ohio)
had been designated by the SMART Office to have met the requirements, and even
Harris et al. 25

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