US States and Territories Granted Year-long Extension To Comply with Federal Sex Offender Regulations

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The U.S. Virgin Islands now has another year to come into compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), thanks to an extension granted by the federal government to all U.S. states and territories.

Several states and territories had already filed for extensions to the July 2010 deadline, prompting the federal government to push back the deadline by one year. Any state or territory who does not comply with SORNA, passed in 2006 calling for “substantial compliance” with federal law, could stand to lose 10 to 15 percent of Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program funds.

The Virgin Islands Department of Justice — just one of the many players in the process of rewriting the territory’s sex offender laws — is optimistic that the V.I. will comply with SORNA by the new July 2011 deadline.

“We are examining every single thing with a fine-toothed comb,” said V.I. DOJ spokesperson Sara Lezama. “It gets down to the really nitty gritty stuff. We’d rather be very thorough and diligent and have it take a lengthy period of time than rush it and not have a comprehensive law.”

Some of the countless issues faced by those rewriting the law include whether to require a sex offender who own a timeshare in the territory to register in the V.I., and how to handle situations like a father taking his 17-year-old son to a strip club to celebrate his high school graduation — a crime which could result in a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor with a sexual connotation, requiring the father to register as a sex offender.

“We don’t want to leave any loopholes open,” said Lezama. “It does take a very long time. We have several other agencies involved in order to have a really comprehensive perspective while writing the law.”

The local task force rewriting the law, which began meeting in August 2009, is comprised of representatives from the Office of the Governor, V.I. Police Department, V.I. Superior Court, Office of Probation and Parole, V.I. DOJ, V.I. Department of Health, V.I. Bureau of Corrections, V.I. Department of Human Services, Sexual Offender Registry Board and the U.S. Department of Justice.

One change expected to occur under the new law is that all people ever convicted, or found not guilty by reason of insanity in a crime of a sexual nature will be required to register as sex offenders. The current law only requires those convicted or found not guilty by reason of insanity after July 1, 1994 to register.

“We’ll have to go back into our court records and do court-ordered registration for crimes going all the way back, so that will be a lengthy, costly process,” said Lezama. “We plan to do it in chunks, starting with the most recent offenders. You want to make sure the ones who committed the crimes most recently are registering.”

Virgin Islands law will also change the way sex offenders are classified. Currently, a teenager who has sex with his underage girlfriend can be lumped in with those who have committed a violent sexual offense by being required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The V.I. will adopt a three-tiered system to avoid lumping two such crimes together.

“We don’t want to require those who haven’t committed a violent offense to undergo lifetime registration,” said Lezama. “The new three-tiered system will be based on length of sentence, age of victim and whether it’s a repeat offense.”

The regulation of where sex offenders can live in relation to schools, which is commonly found in state sex offender laws, will likely not be a factor in the new Virgin Islands law due to the small size of the islands; however, there will be restrictions on where sex offenders can work.

“It doesn’t appear that we’ll be able to make any type of living restriction,” said Lezama. “There are restrictions on where they can work. Sex offenders will not be able to work in a school, daycare or any type of childcare facility.”

The Virgin Islands’ sex offender registry is currently online at the DOJ Web site, www.doj.vi.gov, and includes information such as the name, address, place of employment and physical description of sex offenders residing in the territory. The Department of Justice plans to eventually post photos of sex offenders on the registry, and to link up with the national registry.

Although coming into compliance with SORNA could very well cost more than the territory would lose in funding for not complying with the federal mandate, updating the V.I.’s sex offender law is necessary, according to Lezama. She also urged residents to be vigilant when it comes to sex offenders.

“It’s a serious thing that the public needs to be aware of,” said Lezama. “If you know somebody in your area who isn’t registered, it’s something that should be reported. You really have to have a clear idea of what situation you’re leaving your children in.”