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The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA)

The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as SORNA, is part of a federal law that requires states to maintain a system for monitoring and tracking convicted sex offenders. The Act makes it a federal crime to knowingly fail to comply with state registration requirements following release from prison.

SORNA applies to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as to Native American tribes and nations and several U.S. territories. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) monitors each jurisdiction's compliance with SORNA. It issues regular reports on implementation of the law in each state. According to the DOJ, only 18 states and 4 U.S. territories are in substantial compliance with the law at this time.

This article will provide background on efforts to improve public safety through SORNA. It will describe its key provisions. It will also discuss crimes associated with federal and state laws related to sex offender registration.

Background Behind SORNA

In 2006, Congress passed The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). It is Title I of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The law was enacted 25 years after the murder of Adam Walsh, a six-year-old boy abducted from a shopping mall in Florida and later murdered. Although no one was ever tried for the crime, Florida police closed that case in 2008. They concluded that a convicted serial killer who had died in 1996 while imprisoned for other murders was the likely killer.

Previously, after the child murders of Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota and Megan Kanka in New Jersey, Congress passed laws directing each state to establish a sex offender registry and to provide community notification to the public. By 2005, federal law created the National Sex Offender Public Website for public use.

Child safety advocates sought consistency in the registration of sex offenders and punishment for non-compliance with registration laws. The ongoing goal included providing local law enforcement and the public with quick access to accurate data on registered sex offenders living in their jurisdiction.

How SORNA Works

Each state defines crimes labeled sex offenses, as well as what the appropriate punishment is for each crime. SORNA categorizes those offenses into three tiers according to the length of prison term for the offense, aggravating circumstances, the age of the victim, and other factors. Most crimes under state laws for sexual assault will fall under Tier II or Tier III. Each tier imposes certain reporting requirements on the offenders. Below is an outline of what offenses fall into each tier along with the reporting requirements for the tier.

Tier III Offenses

This is the most serious of the three tiers under SORNA. A Tier III crime is one that is punishable by at least one year in prison and at least one of the following:

  • Is comparable to federal crimes of aggravated sexual abuse (18 U.S.C. Section 2241), sexual abuse (18 U.S.C. Section 2242)
  • Is comparable to a federal crime of abusive sexual contact (18 U.S.C. Section 2244) when committed against a minor under 13 years of age at the time of the offense
  • Involved the kidnapping of a minor not accompanied by a parent or guardian
  • If it was committed after the offender had committed a Tier II crime

Offenders convicted of Tier III crimes have a lifetime reporting requirement. They must register with local authorities every time they change their address or move to a different jurisdiction. Offenders in this category must also verify their registration information in person to law enforcement every 90 days.

Tier II Offenses

Like a Tier III offense, a Tier II offense must be punishable by imprisonment for at least a year. However, a Tier II offense may also be one that involves an offense committed against a minor that is similar to any of the following:

  • Sex trafficking, coercion or enticement, transporting another with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, or abusive sexual contact
  • Use of a minor in a sexual performance, soliciting a minor to engage in prostitution, or producing or distributing child pornography

It may also be an offense that the offender committed after they had committed a Tier I offense. Conviction of a Tier II crime carries a 25-year reporting requirement. Offenders must also verify their information in person every six months.

Tier I Offenses

Tier I crimes are those offenses that do not fall into the other two tiers. Tier I offenders must register for 15 years after release from prison. They must provide in-person verification annually. If they have a clean record, registration can end at 10 years. A clean record means the following:

  • No conviction of any subsequent offense punishable by a year or more in prison
  • No conviction of any subsequent sexual offense
  • The offender must successfully complete any required parole period, supervision period, or sexual offender treatment program

What Information Must a Sex Offender Provide?

Under SORNA, a sex offender must provide the following information for registration to law enforcement. This includes law enforcement in communities where they reside, work, or attend school.

  • Name, including all aliases *
  • Date of birth
  • All internet identifiers and addresses
  • All telephone numbers - landline and cell phones
  • Social Security Number
  • Residential address *
  • Other residential information, including temporary lodging for seven or more days
  • Passport information
  • Place of employment and address *
  • Professional license information
  • School name and address *
  • Vehicle information *
  • Driver's license or ID card
  • Physical description *
  • Current photograph *
  • Finger and palm prints
  • DNA information
  • Criminal history
  • Text of the registered sex offense and any prior sex offenses *

Not all of the information provided to a law enforcement agency upon registration must also be shared with the public. Items above that are marked with an asterisk denote public information.

When an offender is in prison, this information must be provided prior to release. If an offender did not receive a prison sentence, their initial registration must occur within three business days from their sentencing on the sex offense.

When law enforcement receives registration data, it must be provided to sex offender websites within three business days. They must also provide the data to specific institutions and organizations that work with children or on matters of child safety. This includes schools and public housing agencies within the vicinity of the offender's home, work, or school.

SORNA also requires sex offender registration for juvenile adjudications where the juvenile was tried and convicted as an adult for a sex offense. Registration must also occur in certain cases where the juvenile was 14 years or older at the time and the case remained in Juvenile Court.

Failure To Register Under SORNA

Under SORNA, states must enact their own statutes to punish offenders who do not comply with registration. These laws must provide for a maximum term of imprisonment of at least one year. Even states that do not comply with SORNA have crimes for failing to register.

Convicted sex offenders who knowingly fail to register or update their registration as ordered can face prosecution under state or federal law. The federal crime for failing to register appears at 18 U.S.C. Section 2250. Upon conviction, a court can sentence an offender to a fine and/or up to 10 years in prison. If an offender fails to register and also commits a violent federal crime, they may face up to 30 years in prison.

State crime penalties may vary. For example, in California, an offender who commits the crime of failing to register as a sex offender will face a misdemeanor or felony penalty based on whether the registration offense was a misdemeanor or a felony. Misdemeanor convictions may carry up to one year in jail. Felony convictions can carry up to three years in prison. 

In Virginia, failing to register or falsifying a registration for a Tier I or Tier II offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor. An offender can face up to 12 months in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. Failing to register or falsifying a registration for a Tier III offense is a Class 6 felony. An offender can face up to five years in prison and/or a $2,500 fine.

Investigations into violations of SORNA's registration requirements most often involve local law enforcement. Two key agencies in the federal government also investigate these crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigates federal sex crimes and those occurring across state lines. The U.S. Marshals Service will also help in these cases. They often locate and arrest offenders who have active warrants.

How Effective Is SORNA?

Critics of SORNA question its effectiveness in preventing crimes against children. SORNA bases registration requirements on the type of sex offense conviction and not an individual risk assessment tool for recidivism. Some point to the majority of states that have not come into compliance with the law. 

Outdated information and limitations on enforcement raise further concerns. One review concluded that there are some 25,000 sex offenders who have moved and failed to register their new addresses in accordance with the law.

Under SORNA, states that do not come into compliance with its provisions face a loss of federal justice assistance grant funds. Yet, some states find it will cost them millions to come into compliance. These states have been willing to part with the mandated 10% cut in their federal justice funds rather than comply.

Get Legal Help Understanding SORNA

As you can see, there are significant penalties for failing to register under SORNA. Prosecution may occur at the state or federal level. To understand what laws apply to your situation, consider talking with an experienced sex crime attorney in your area.

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