There’s a growing conflict between state and federal sex offender laws, and Kelly Piercy is in the middle of it.
Piercy was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison in exchange for pleading guilty to possessing child pornography. His return to his native Georgia in 2005, after six years in prison, forced him to register in a state with what’s widely considered one of the toughest sex offender laws in the country.
Residency restrictions forced him to live in a small farmhouse in rural Burke County that’s 17 miles over open roads from the closest Walmart.
Piercy saw his chance to live a more normal life when Georgia lawmakers opened a way in 2010 for some sex offenders to get their names off the registry with a judge’s approval. These are offenders, for instance, who are disabled, teens charged with statutory rape for consensual sex or not likely to re-offend.
Piercy meets several of these criteria – he’s been slowly going blind since the 1970s because of a rare degenerative eye disease – and a Superior Court judge recently agreed that he should be taken off the registry.
But there’s a catch, and it’s one being repeated across America.
Superior Court Judge David Roper said federal regulations still compel Piercy to keep his name on the registry. Roper backs up the decision with a host of case law from similar challenges around the country.
For Piercy, it’s a slap in the face.
“If the state says I’m not a danger, then I should be able to live like a normal person,” he said.
HIS CASE IS representative of a larger debate in the legal community about the Adam Walsh Act, which established federal requirements and standards for sex offender registration in 2006. Only 15 states have substantially complied with the law; most, including Georgia, have chosen to take the penalty of a 10 percent reduction in federal law enforcement grants for not implementing it.
“It’s a real interesting and difficult area of law that a lot of people are dealing with,” said Augusta attorney Scott Connell, who is petitioning to have Augusta businessman Maxwell Vallotton removed from Georgia’s registry.
Connell said his focus is on getting Vallotton off the state registry first, but if he’s forced to tackle the federal requirements, then “we’ll do that dance.”
“A lot of people are going to be in that two-step process,” Connell said.
The question is whether a state’s sex offenders should have to comply with the federal requirements if the state doesn’t.
“The two laws basically can’t co-exist,” said Stephanie Carrigg, a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Justice Department Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking.
THE LAW, named for the murdered son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, established guidelines for the types of information sex offenders must provide. Those guidelines, which fall under the umbrella of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, require much more information about sex offenders to be publicly available than what’s commonly found on most state registries. It also requires juveniles convicted of sex crimes to register and extends the amount of time offenders have to report their address.
“One of the primary goals is information sharing,” said Linda Baldwin, the director of the Justice Department office.
Ideally, uniform reporting standards and improved digital databases would give law enforcement greater access to more accurate information so, for instance, a Richmond County deputy who pulls over an absconded sex offender from Alabama would know immediately who he is dealing with.
But most states are resisting the changes.
“They find it a difficult pill to swallow,” Baldwin said.
Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said most sheriffs in Georgia are already going above and beyond what’s required by them to keep tabs on sex offenders in their neighborhoods.
He said the cost of implementing the added federal requirements is prohibitive.
“It’s the federal government telling you how to do something, when most of law enforcement is done by the local police department,” Norris said.
States had three years after the Adam Walsh Act became law to become substantially compliant with its requirements. Not doing so meant a 10 percent reduction in federal law enforcement Byrne grants, which provide funding for after-school education programs and specialized law enforcement training in areas such as gang prevention.
Norris said the penalty lacks teeth. Information from the Justice Policy Institute shows Georgia received $5,594,288 in Byrne grants in 2006; the penalty would be a loss of just more than $500,000. In contrast, the estimated cost to implement the federal requirements in 2009 was $15 million in Georgia.
“In the whole scheme of things, (the penalty) is not a big number,” Norris said.
PIERCY VIEWS HIMSELF as a victim of a broken system. He’s not against the registry’s intent, but he said it creates the illusion of safety to the general public.
He points to Phillip Garrido, a convicted sex offender wearing an ankle monitor in California who kidnapped Jaycee Dugard in 1991 when she was 11 and kept her as a prisoner for 18 years.
Piercy also argues that there are predators who were not on the registry, including Ryan Brunn, who pleaded guilty in January to sexually assaulting and killing a 7-year-old girl in Canton, Ga., then killed himself in prison.
“What did the registry do for that child?” Piercy asked.
He proposes a three-year period on the registry that involves therapy and intense supervision. A re-evaluation after that period would determine whether the person should be removed from the registry.
“I don’t know if there’s a solution, but I think there’s a better answer,” he said.