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Wayne Stenehjem, Published November 09 2012

Letter: ND sex offender law works

A recent article from the Associated Press, “Falling short on sex offender laws,” stated that North Dakota is one of 34 states that has failed to comply with the SORNA provisions of the Adam Walsh Act passed by Congress. A reader might assume from reading the article that North Dakota has not been diligent in passing laws, developing computer systems and creating effective programs for registration and community notification of convicted sex offenders.

In fact, the opposite is true. North Dakota began registering sex offenders in 1991, three years before Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Act mandating states to begin registering offenders. North Dakota’s registration requirements were applied retroactively in 1995, 11 years before Congress put that requirement in SORNA.

North Dakota has had online access to sex offenders’ information (www.sexoffender.nd.gov) since 2001, years before the National Sex Offender Public website was created. We began transmitting sex offender information to the national site as soon as it was able to receive the data. Information is updated in real time every workday, as changes and updates are reported by the courts, Parole & Probation, the jails, other states, offenders, employers and others.

But when Congress passed the legislation in 2006, it created a one-size-fits-all package that offers little connection to the stated goal of making our communities safer.

Let me provide one example (there are several) of how North Dakota has been deemed “non-compliant.” In 2001, North Dakota implemented a three-tier system based on a sex offender’s current risk to the public. Everything the offender does, negative or positive, is taken into consideration in deciding what tier the offender is placed in. Factors such as treatment completion, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, probation revocation, prison discipline history, work history and other factors are continually monitored and used to reassess which tier the offender approximately belongs in. These facts are important.

Instead of a risk-based system, SORNA requires that we adopt a conviction-based tier system. In short, whatever conviction offense a defense attorney and prosecutor arrive at in plea negotiations would forever control the offender’s tier from that point forward. Nothing that the offender did, good or bad (except conviction for another sexual offense), would have any effect on the offender’s tier level. That is not good for North Dakota.

From a practical standpoint, our registry and registration procedures are already compatible with SORNA’s goal. This brings us to our main contention: SORNA doesn’t have to be “one-size-fits-all” for the goals of SORNA to be accomplished.

I am unwilling to throw away the valuable work that a committee of law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, probation officers and others have been doing for the past decade.

Other states have balked at compliance with SORNA because of the cost. That is not the case in North Dakota. We have expended considerable resources to provide what I think is the best sex offender registration system in the nation. We could abandon our system for one that is less effective in protecting the public, in the name of achieving SORNA compliance, but I do not believe the trade-off is worth the price.

Stenehjem is North Dakota attorney general.