By Christopher Zoukis . . . In October 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped at gunpoint and never seen again.
When the boy’s mother, Patty Wetterling, learned that her home state of Minnesota did not have a database of possible suspects—notably convicted sex offenders—she set out to make a change.
Wetterling’s efforts led to the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which was signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Jacob’s Law was the first effort to establish a nationwide registry of convicted sex offenders, but it was not the last.
Soon after Jacob’s Law was enacted, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor with a previous conviction for sexual assault of a child. This heinous crime led the state of New Jersey to pass Megan’s Law, which required anyone “convicted, adjudicated delinquent or found not guilty by reason of insanity for commission of a sex offense” to register with local law enforcement upon release from prison, relocation into the state, or after a conviction that did not include incarceration.
Two years later, Congress enacted a federal Megan’s Law. The bill, which passed in the House by a 418-0 vote and in the Senate by unanimous consent, required that states provide community notification of sex offender registry information “that is necessary to protect the public.” By the end of 1996, every state in the nation had some form of public notification law for sex offenders in place.
In 2006, Congress adopted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named in honor of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was abducted and murdered in Florida. The Adam Walsh Act repealed and replaced both Jacob’s Law and Megan’s Law. The comprehensive Adam Walsh Act created a national sex offender registry and mandated that every state comply with Title I of the Act, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”) or risk losing 10 percent of federal law enforcement funding. SORNA requires, among other things, that states establish a three-tiered sex offender registry system, with “Tier 3” offenders required to update their registry information every three months, for life. SORNA also created the National Sex Offender public website, which had nearly 5 million visits and 772 million hits by 2008.
Full compliance with SORNA has proven costly, and many states have opted out. As of 2014, only 17 states were in full compliance; the remaining 33 states have foregone their full federal law enforcement funding while remaining partially compliant.
Despite many states choosing not to comply with SORNA, a tremendous amount of sex-offender registry legislation has been enacted across the country since the 1990s. These laws have gone well beyond keeping a registry of convicted sex offenders, and now regulate where sex offenders may live and work, with whom they may have contact, and even where they may be present. Illinois, for example, created a law enforcement registry in 1986. Since it was created, the Illinois Legislature has amended the registry 23 times, each time adding new offenses, restrictions, or requirements.