The SORNA-Compliance Dog That Didn’t Bark

Back in April I wrote this post about a pending bill (H 772) that was intended to bring North Carolina into compliance with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).

In its initial form, it appeared the bill would have done all the things North Carolina needed to do (and then some, perhaps) to substantially implement SORNA—increase registration periods for certain offenders, require registrants to provide some additional information to the sheriff (like their passport number and a description of their car, for example), and treat certain serious juvenile adjudications like convictions for registration purposes.

The bill moved along for a couple months, but after an early June committee meeting in the House of Representatives it was gutted and replaced with a new edition establishing a joint legislative committee to study and report on what legislative changes are truly necessary under SORNA. The committee would have been charged with weighing the costs to State and local agencies of implementing those changes against the potential loss in federal grant funding if the changes were not made. (A 2009 report on that issue by the non-profit Justice Policy Institute, an organization whose mission is to “reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system,” suggested North Carolina’s $14 million compliance tab would far exceed lost grant money of less than $1 million.) But even that new edition of the bill never made it through the Senate. It was still in committee when they adjourned, and it’s not one of the items listed in their adjournment resolution for consideration when they reconvene in July.

We are not the only state that decided to defer action on SORNA until a more complete accounting can be made of the relative costs—both monetarily and in terms of public safety—of compliance and non-compliance. According to media reports linked here, fewer than 10 states have actually complied.

An unresolved question is what effect the General Assembly’s decision not to amend our laws has on petitions to terminate registration in light of G.S. 14-208.12A (an issue I wrote about here, back in 2009). That’s the provision that says a court may grant a petitioner’s request to come off the registry after 10 years if, among other things, the “requested relief complies with the provisions of the federal Jacob Wetterling Act, as amended, and any other federal standards applicable to the termination of a registration requirement or required to be met as a condition for the receipt of federal funds by the State . . . .” To the extent that SORNA-compliant registration periods would go beyond 10 years (and for many registrants they would), this existing North Carolina law might—in a roundabout way—give some effect to SORNA, notwithstanding the General Assembly’s decision not to act this year. I had generally advised people that this thorny issue arguably could be deferred until July 27, 2011, as SORNA rules are not technically “required to be met as a condition for the receipt of federal funds” until then. But I think that argument gets harder to make once the compliance date passes.

I suppose I shouldn’t spend all my time talking about legislation that didn’t pass. Some bills related to sex offender registration have already been signed by the Governor. Under S.L. 2011-37 (H 59), registered offenders are no longer eligible for emergency medical service credentials.  And S.L. 2011-61 (H 219) creates new rules designed to track name changes by people required to register. That law also makes changes to the termination petition statute described above. Under current law, the proper venue for those petitions is the superior court in the district where the registrant resides. Effective for petitions filed on or after December 1, 2011, the law amends G.S. 14-208.12A(a) to provide that for persons required to register for an offense that occurred in North Carolina, the petition is to be filed in the district where the person was convicted of the offense. If the reportable conviction is for an offense that occurred in another state, the petition is to be filed in the district where the person resides.