U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen is known for his quip—perhaps apocryphal—“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” Although Senator Dirksen was commenting on the spendthrift ways of some of his political colleagues in the 1960s, fifty years later we see that some politicians still have trouble managing budgets in a way that serves the public interest.
In 2007, the federal government enacted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which established a national registry for sex offenders. Under Title I of that legislation, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), state governments are required to update their sex offender registration laws and reporting systems or face a penalty to federal justice system grants.
North Carolina’s legislature hasn’t authorized the necessary upgrades. As a consequence, the state is at risk of losing over $800,000 in annual federal grants.
Is federal compliance too costly?
Some state legislators have ready answers for why the improvements haven’t taken place: they are just too expensive. “At some point, when you have limited resources, you have to pick and choose and prioritize where you feel the spending is most important,” State Senator Bob Rucho (R–District 39) told reporters. It is estimated that $16 million would be required for North Carolina to upgrade its registry software to ensure compatibility with the federal database and to enter 13,000 state sex offenders into the national system.
However, proponents of revising the system point out that the federal grant would pay for the cost of the upgrade over then next twenty years.
Senator Rucho also contends that the existing state database meets the needs of North Carolina residents just fine. Letting the federal government bully state government into following centralized rules is an illegitimate grab for power. “It’s an example of Washington deciding that they’re so much smarter than the rest of us, deciding how they want it done, even though it isn’t necessary for us to do,” he said.
The view from Wilmington
As criminal defense attorneys in New Hanover County, we aren’t big fans of the sex offender registry concept—either the state’s version or the national system. We think it’s too punitive and ripe for abuse. We did, however, pay attention in grade school civics class, and we still favor good government.
The federal registry is intended to provide a national eye to look after a population with a high recidivism rate. When states fail to follow through on their obligation to synchronize their databases with the national database, it’s much easier for sexual predators to cross state lines and become anonymous.
Thirty-six states, including ours, have failed in their duty to their fellow citizens by ignoring the need to upgrade their software. And did we mention that the federal government’s grants pay for the upgrades over the next 20 years? By failing to invest in system improvements today, our political leaders in Raleigh are economizing foolishly. And, with apologies to Senator Dirksen, for North Carolina today even $16 million is “real money.”