Sex Offender Registry Removal Hearings: Views from North Carolina’s Superior Court Bench Grace F. Love & L. Alvin Malesky, Jr. Western Carolina University Introduction • Sex offender registration is required of those convicted of certain sexual offenses. The federal Jacob Wetterling Act (1994) created minimum standards mandating individual state sex offender registries. The registration requirement is a mandate of public protection, not a sentence of punishment; thus, eventual removal is not a certainty. • Increased registration can strain law-enforcement’s ability to monitor high-risk offenders, create public misperceptions and false sense of security, and serious living costs and social consequences for offenders and their families; thus benefits of removing lower risk offenders from public registration has been emphasized (Letourneau et al, 2010; Levenson, 2011; Wright, 2009). • In North Carolina, offenders meeting certain criteria can petition the Superior Court to be removed from the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry (NCSOR) after ten years registration (N.C.G.S. §14-208.12A). • Compliance with the Wetterling Act is one of the 9 Findings of Fact that must be met in order for a Judge to grant the Petition and Order for Termination of NC Sex Offender Registration (AOC-CR-262). However, NC joined the majority of states rejecting ratification of the stricter 2006 amendment to the Wetterling Act, known as SORNA (Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, 42 USC §16915). • This move left the state with: a statutory condition for granting removal from the NCSOR (NCGS 14208.12A(1a)(2)) that mandates compliance with an amended Federal Act, in direct conflict with a State legislative decision not to ratify the amendment; and discrepancy between State and Federal requirements for sex offender registration. Research Goal • This research was an initial inquiry to ascertain the criteria NC Superior Court Judges consider when ruling on petitions for termination of sex offender registration, and explore the complex challenges facing Judges who must interpret compliance with state and federal mandates during hearings for removal from the NC sex offender registry. Method Discussion Participants: 26 North Carolina Superior Court Judges, representing approximately one quarter (23%) of all Superior Court Judges in the state. Experience on the bench ranged 1.5-33 years (M=11.88; SD=8.9). Measures: A ten-minute survey consisting of 15 dichotomous, multiple-choice and open-ended questions soliciting information and experiences of Judges who preside over hearings for termination of NC sex offender registration. Procedures: Anonymous questionnaire was returned either online via Qualtrics1, or on paper via U.S. mail. • Results • •Legal counsel is rarely appointed for termination of sex offender registration hearings. 69% (N=18) of Judges reported petitioners were usually without legal representation. •Findings of Fact endorsed as most contributing to petition denial were (#6) potential threat to public safety (65% N=17), followed by (#7) federal Wetterling compliance (27% N=7). •There was 100% agreement (N=26) that a petition can be denied for registration transgressions, such as failure to register, citing it as evidentiary of a threat to public safety. This, despite growing research that failure to register does not typically contribute to sexual recidivism (Letourneau et al, 2010; Levenson & Harris 2011; 2012). •Qualitative analysis of information Judges use to determine a petitioner’s potential threat to public safety revealed 50% from (N=22) criminal record plus psychological assessment/report, risk assessment, and/or sex offender treatment. However, psychological records are not always available. 25% (N=11) used original case details and State testimony, and 25% (N=11) included personal references and lifestyle. •Of the16 Judges providing specific written responses to concerns of presiding over removal hearings, 69% (N=11) considered assuring public safety to be the greatest challenge, with 56% (N=9) indicating apprehension about determining potential risks to public safety. Half (50% N=8) had concerns about determining compliance with federal legislation. •Responses of this sample of Judges were most often divided when it came to drawing the line at where federal standards apply to conditions for removal from the NCSOR. • • • Removal hearings are decided by Superior Court Judges, who must interpret the applicability and intent of relevant legislation, and balance the interests of the petitioner with those of public safety. Differences between State and Federal standards translate to particular difficulties determining: which NC sex offenders are eligible for termination of registration, whether eligible to petition at 10, 15, or 25 years, if a non-sex conviction affects eligibility, and if additional federal requirements must be met by petitioners registered less than15 years. It is unclear if a uniform standard exists for determining the Wetterling Finding of Fact (#7). Judges would benefit from State guidelines specific to addressing each of the standards at issue. It is further recommended that a forensic risk assessment be completed at the time of each petition, and a recent forensic psychological evaluation be required for any petitioner for whom Finding of Fact 6 becomes a pivotal determination. References • Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, 42 USC § 16915 et seq. [P.L. 109-248]. Retrieved from U.S. Government Printing Office: http://www.gpo.gov • Administrative Office of the Courts. (2011). Petition and order for termination of sex offender registration. AOC-CR-292. General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division. State of North Carolina. Retrieved from http://www.nccourts.org • Letourneau, E., Levenson, J., Bandyopadhyay, D., Armstrong, K., & Sinha, D. (2010). Effects of South Carolina’s sex offender registration and notification policy on deterrence of adult sex crimes. Criminal Justice and Behavior, (37), 537-552. • Levenson, J. (2011). [Guest blog]. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://sajrt.blogspot.com • Levenson, J., & Harris, A. (2011; 2012). 100,000 Sex offenders missing … Or are they? Deconstruction of an urban legend. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 23(3), 375-386. • North Carolina Department of Justice (2011).The North Carolina sex offender registration & public protection registration programs. Retrieved from: http://ncdoj.gov • North Carolina General Assembly. North Carolina General Statutes. Retrieved from http://www.ncga.state.nc.us • The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act (1994) 42 U.S.C.A. § 14071, West 2008. • Wright, R., (Ed.). (2009). Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions. New York: Springer Publishing Company. 1 Anonymous web based research survey software.