What Are Sex Offender Registries?

When and how individuals must register as a sex offender

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 11, 2022

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Individuals convicted of a sex crime are required by state and federal laws to register as a sex offender in the jurisdiction where they committed the offense. Law enforcement uses sex offender registries to monitor offenders after their release into the community. Some of the data is also provided to the public on sex offender websites. This information keeps the public aware of where sex offenders live, work, and attend school. State laws make failure to register a crime in itself—one that can carry significant penalties, from fines to additional time in prison. “Being on the registry can affect your ability to get an apartment, a job, as well as the embarrassment and time commitment of going to the sheriff’s office multiple times a year,” says Kansas criminal defense attorney Trey Pettlon. “It’s a scarlet letter, and some people are pretty vigilant about making everybody in the neighborhood aware.” Because of the weighty consequences of a sex crime, it’s essential to seek legal representation from an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

What Are Sex Offender Registries?

Every state has laws directing law enforcement to create and maintain a sex offender registry (SOR) to track and monitor convicted sex offenders in the community. These laws aim to ensure public safety and prevent repeat sexual offenses. Every state’s sex offender registration act sets requirements for:
  • Who has to register
  • The registration process
  • What information must be provided
  • How long sex offenders must be registered
  • How frequently offenders must update their information
  • How much information can be made available to the public
  • How the public can access the information
How long sex offenders must be registered “varies by state and is oftentimes markedly different from one state to another,” says Pettlon. “Frequently, [the registration period] will be 10 years or more,” and typically doesn’t begin until the sex offender is released from their prison sentence. Public sex offender registry websites are the primary way that information is provided to the public. Public registries are intended to increase public safety by making information about sex offenders more accessible. They are not designed to target specific individuals. Information should not be used to harass or injure individuals on the registry. Doing so can lead to legal trouble.

History of Sex Offender Registries

Through the 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, Congress required states to create and maintain registries for tracking and monitoring convicted sex offenders. In 1996, Congress amended the Jacob Wetterling Act, requiring law enforcement to provide information about convicted sex offenders to the public. Modeled on a New Jersey law passed in response to the rape and murder of Megan Kanka, this 1996 amendment is known as Megan’s Law. State laws that require public disclosure of information about sex offenders are generally referred to as Megan’s Laws. In 2006, Congress enacted the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). SORNA:
  • Closed loopholes in prior sex offender registry laws
  • Improved the network of sex offender registration and notification programs nationwide, allowing law enforcement to collaborate more effectively
The Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website links to sex offender registries nationwide.

Who Has to Register as a Sex Offender

State laws set the specific requirements for who must register as a sex offender and how long they have to register. Typically, anyone convicted of a sex crime must register. There are many kinds of sexual offenses, with varying penalties. Depending on the severity of the offense, individuals may have to register for several years or life. Because each state is slightly different, it is essential to check your state’s laws and requirements. A criminal defense attorney can give the best advice on your state’s specific rules.

How to Register as a Sex Offender

In general, convicted sex offenders must register with the local law enforcement agency (such as the state police or sheriff’s office) in the jurisdiction where they live, work, or attend school. Registering is not a one-time event. In addition to regular check in requirements, sex offenders are also required to report specific changes to law enforcement. For example, in Michigan, registered sex offenders must notify their local law enforcement or state police agency about any changes in:
  • Legal name
  • Residence (including moving out of state)
  • Place of employment
  • Enrollment at an institution of higher learning
  • New phone numbers or email addresses
These updates must be reported in person or via mail within a legally specified time period (for example, within three days). As for the frequency of regular check-ins, Pettlon says convicted sex offenders in Kansas “have to report four times each year to the registering law enforcement agency in each of the counties in which the offender resides, is employed, or attends school.” These periodic check-ins involve taking updated photographs and paying registration fees. The registering law enforcement agency will have the forms and requirements to complete and information about when and how to update information.

Registration Requirements

What information are sex offenders required to provide law enforcement? While each state has its own registration form and required information, offenders typically must provide their:
  • Legal name (and aliases)
  • Current address information
  • Current occupation
  • Education plans
  • Criminal history
Some states may require additional information, including fingerprints or DNA samples (not all of which is given to the public).

What Information Is Accessible to the Public?

This also depends on each state’s sex offender registration law. Typically, the sex offender’s name, picture, address, and offense are listed publicly. In some states, the type of information made publicly available depends on the offender’s risk level of repeating the offense. For example, New York has three re-offense risk levels: low, medium, and high risk. A judge determines the individual’s risk level after a court hearing. Individuals determined to be at high risk of repeating an offense will have the most information made available to keep the public safe. In addition to the type of offender information made available, risk level designation can also determine how information is provided to the public. In Texas, for example, the Department of Public Safety directly notifies communities about high-risk offenders by mailing an informational postcard to each residence and business.

Failure to Register

Failure to register as a sex offender or to update one’s registration information in compliance with state registration laws can bring severe penalties. Each state has its own penalties for failure to register, from fines to prison sentences. In Kansas, for example, Pettlon says if any violation of the registration act occurs for more than 30 consecutive days, it constitutes a new and separate offense on the 31st day. A first conviction for violation of the state sex offender registry act is severe: It’s a felony with its own prison sentence. Following your state’s requirements in registering and regularly updating your information is essential to avoid further legal trouble. If you are unsure about your state’s registration requirements, consider speaking with a local attorney with experience in handling sex offenses.

Questions for an Attorney

If you have been convicted of a sex offense and are required to register with your state’s system, it is essential to comply with all requirements as soon as possible. Failing to register can bring significant penalties. If you are facing charges or have questions about your state’s requirements, speak with a sex crimes attorney as soon as possible. Fortunately, many attorneys provide free consultations, allowing the attorney to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs. To see whether an attorney or law firm is a good fit, ask informed questions such as:
  • What are your legal fees, and what billing options do you offer?
  • How many years of experience do you have as a criminal defense lawyer?
  • What are my state’s sex offender registration requirements?
  • What steps do I need to take to register or update as a sex offender?
You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. Look for a sex offense attorney in the Super Lawyers directory on matters related to sex offense registration.

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