Fifteen Years of the Controversial Adam Walsh Act is Nothing to Boast About

On July 27, 2021, the US Marshals issued a press release (1) boasting of the 15th anniversary of the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA), a bill that remains controversial. Due to the complexity and cost of organizing entire state statutes, the requirement to place teens as young as 14 on the registries, and the requirement to classify Registered Persons by offense rather than by risk, only 18 states, 4 territories and 136 tribes have been able to obtain “substantial compliance” with the AWA guidelines (2). Texas rejected the AWA because they found it would cost them only $2 million to take the federal penalty for refusing to adopt the AWA guidelines but $39 million to implement them (3).

Even among AWA-compliant states, laws vary greatly and are no less confusing and complex than before they adopted the AWA guidelines. In Ohio, the first state to adopt the AWA, the switch from risk-based to offense-based classification placed three times the number of Registrants into the “Tier 3” category, the category associated with high-risk offenders. This was a direct result of the AWA guidelines; no additional crimes were committed to cause this change. The Ohio Supreme Court later declared SB 10, Ohio’s AWA compliance law, was punitive and violates constitutional protections against retroactive laws (4). As a result, Ohio has two separate registry guidelines, one for those convicted before January 1, 2008, and the other for those convicted after January 1, 2008. Ohio wasted about $10 million in taxpayer dollars to defend this controversial law in the courts (5). Ohio’s sentencing commission has since recommended Ohio return to a risk-based classification system, which would bring the state out-of-compliance with the AWA (6).

The act of granting registry compliance enforcement powers to the US Marshals Service (USMS) is a problem overlooked even among critics of the federal registry laws. Section 142 of the AWA allows for federal resources, including the USMS, to be used assist jurisdictions in locating and apprehending those who fail to register.

Perhaps one reason why this practice is not heavily scrutinized is because they are so commonplace now. In the USMS press release, the Marshals boast of conducting over 4,000 compliance check operations on over 634,000 Registered Persons, arresting over 41,000 Registered Persons for “Failure To Register” (FTR) and over 5,000 for AWA violations. According to the 2020 USMS annual report, the USMS still conducted 281 operations, conducting 52,738 individual compliance checks during a global pandemic (7). They are sometimes given names like “Operation Jessica”(8) or “Operation River Valley Chill”(9) and make local headlines, giving the appearance the public is somehow safer because the USMS are arresting people for failing to fill out some government paperwork. However, a 2009 study found no correlation between failing to register and recidivism (10).

Compliance checks are unnecessary and unconstitutional, and are often used by members of law enforcement as intimidation tools. As a Registered Person who has endured multiple compliance checks, they should be declared unconstitutional, but at the least, the USMS should not be a part of these harassment campaigns.

In 2013, I was sitting down to my dinner table when I hear a loud bang on my door, as if someone was trying to break into my apartment. Upon opening the door, I was accosted by a US Marshal decked out in full riot gear, accompanied by a standard county deputy who looked like he wanted to be anywhere but my apartment at the moment. The Marshal demanded to see my bedroom to confirm I lived there. I asked for a warrant. He told me he didn’t have one, so I refused entry. He threatened to return next week, so I replied if he doesn’t bring a warrant, he’ll still be denied entry. After some rude words and gestures were exchanged, I slammed the door in his face. He did not return. Later in the week, the local news boasted of one arrest of a registrant for possessing firearms as the centerpiece of their compliance check the Sheriff has called “spring cleaning.”

I sued the US Marshals for harassment. I wanted to argue before the courts that the US Marshals Service is conducting a state-sponsored harassment campaign and that compliance checks themselves constitutes a search that demands a warrant. Though it failed, a subsequent compliance check did not try to intimidate me or ask to see my bedroom. I still refused to cooperate with them and demanded they leave.

Other than annoy me and make me angry and bitter at being forced to register, what purpose did this compliance check serve? A person desiring to reoffend will do so regardless of public registry or laws designed to make the lives of Registered Persons insufferable. Most sex crimes occur at home, by someone the victim knows, and most sex offense arrests are of people with no prior sex offense record (11). Few on the registry reoffend, and a Registered Person is far more likely to be arrested for an FTR than for a new sexual offense (12).

Jill Levenson wrote in 2009, “Employment problems experienced by the RSO, and subsequent financial hardships, emerged as the most pressing issue identified by family members. The likelihood of housing disruption was correlated with residential restriction laws; larger buffer distances led to increased frequencies of housing crisis. Family members living with an RSO were more likely to experience threats and harassment by neighbors. Children of RSOs reportedly experienced adverse consequences including stigmatization and differential treatment by teachers and classmates. More than half had experienced ridicule, teasing, depression, anxiety, fear, or anger. Unintended consequences can impact family members’ ability to support RSOs in their efforts to avoid recidivism and successfully reintegrate.”

Fifteen years of state-sponsored harassment and intimidation of those who completed their sentences is nothing to boast about.


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