Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act:

Additional Outreach and Notification of Tribes about Offenders Who Are Released from Prison Needed

GAO-15-23: Published: Nov 18, 2014. Publicly Released: Nov 18, 2014.

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What GAO Found

Most eligible tribes have retained their Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) implementation authority and have either substantially implemented the act or are in the process of doing so. As of August 2014, 77 percent (164 of the 214) of eligible tribes had retained their implementation authority. Tribes that lacked the resources, among other factors, to implement SORNA either delegated their own authority, or the SMART Office delegated the tribe's authority, to a state. According to the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office)—the office SORNA established within the Department of Justice (DOJ) to administer and assist jurisdictions with implementing the law—43 percent (71 of 164) of tribes that retained their authority to implement SORNA have substantially implemented the act; the SMART Office has not yet made a final determination on 43 percent (70 of 164); and 13 percent (22 of 164) have not submitted complete packages. The SMART Office determined that 1 tribe has not yet substantially implemented SORNA.

In GAO's survey of tribes that retained their authority, the four most frequently reported implementation challenges included inability to submit convicted sex offender information to federal databases, lack of notification from state prisons upon the release of sex offenders, lack of staff, and inability to cover the costs of SORNA implementation. Federal agencies have taken steps to address these challenges, but more could be done. For example, DOJ and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) within the Department of the Interior (Interior) have formed a working group to better coordinate federal efforts to address tribes' difficulties submitting convicted sex offender information to federal databases. However, some states have not notified tribes—those that retained their SORNA authority, as well as ineligible and delegated tribes—when sex offenders who will be or have been released from state prison register with the state and indicate that they intend to live, work or attend school on tribal land, as SORNA requires; and while the SMART Office has taken some actions, more could be done to encourage states to provide notification to tribes. Such notification would help tribes identify and monitor sex offenders who live on their lands and enforce tribal laws pertaining to sex offenders. The SMART Office, U.S. Marshals Service, and BIA provided financial assistance, equipment, and staff to help tribes address their resource needs. However, BIA offered assistance only to tribes for which BIA provides direct law enforcement services, which account for only 20 percent of the tribes that retained their SORNA implementation authority, even though BIA is responsible for assisting and advising all federally recognized tribes regarding their law enforcement and public safety needs. Taking steps to ascertain what, if any, resource or other needs all tribes that retained their authority may have could better position BIA to support the tribes' efforts to implement the act.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to DOJ, tribal nations are disproportionately affected by violent crimes and sex offenses in particular. In 2006, Congress passed SORNA, which introduced new sex offender registration and notification standards for states, territories, and eligible tribes. The act made special provisions for eligible tribes to elect either to act as registration jurisdictions or to delegate SORNA functions to the states in which they are located. GAO was asked to assess the status of tribes' efforts to implement SORNA and the challenges they face doing so.

This report addresses, among other things, (1) the extent to which eligible tribes have retained their authority to implement, and for those that did, describe their implementation status and (2) implementation challenges tribes that retained their authority reported, and steps federal agencies have taken or could take to address these challenges. GAO reviewed data on eligible tribes' implementation status; conducted a survey of tribes that retained their authority; and interviewed federal, state, and local officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that, among other things, the SMART Office encourage states to notify tribes about offenders who plan to live, work, or attend school on tribal land upon release from prison. GAO also recommends that BIA reach out to all tribes that retained their authority to determine what, if any, assistance they would like from BIA. DOJ and Interior concurred.

For more information, contact Eileen R. Larence at (202) 512-8777 or larencee@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office), within the Department of Justice (DOJ), is responsible for determining whether jurisdictions have substantially implemented or not substantially implemented the minimum requirements of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA ). One of the SORNA requirements is that notice shall be provided to state, tribal, and local jurisdictions where one who is required to register under SORNA, is released from prison or sentenced to probation. However, we found that of the 129 tribes that responded to our survey, 41 (approximately 32 percent) reported that their state prisons had not notified them when the prisons released a sex offender to the tribes' lands. In addition, about half of these 41 tribes reported that lack of notification when offenders are released from state prisons was a major challenge to their ability to implement SORNA. This could also affect some tribes' ability to enforce their own laws regarding the extent to which sex offenders can live, work, or attend school on their land. The SMART Office conducts annual compliance reviews to evaluate the extent to which substantially implemented jurisdictions remain in continued compliance. However, the guidance that the office used to conduct these reviews did not require the evaluator to request information on whether and how the state, or a designated agency within the state, notifies tribes following registration of a convicted sex offender who will be, or has recently been, released from state prison and indicates that he or she plans to live, work, or attend school on tribal land. We recommended that the SMART Office update its guidance accordingly. In January 2015, the SMART Office updated its SORNA Substantial Implementation Assurance Guidance to inform states that, during the implementation assurance review, the SMART Office may request information from states on the extent to which they are notifying tribes within the state when convicted sex offenders are released from prison. We believe that by amending this guidance, the SMART Office will be better positioned to ensure that substantially implemented states are in compliance with SORNA notification requirements regarding tribes.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that tribes that retained their SORNA implementation authority, as well as ineligible and delegated tribes, are notified when convicted sex offenders who intend to live, work, or attend school on tribal land initially register or update a registration, the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs should direct the SMART Office to amend its substantial implementation assurance guidance to require its evaluators to determine whether substantially implemented states are notifying tribes that retained their authority to implement SORNA, as well as ineligible and delegated tribes, as required, and use this information in the office's ongoing outreach to the states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2014, we issued a report (GAO-15-23) on the extent to which eligible tribes had retained their authority to implement SORNA, and the challenges faced by those that had retained their authority. We reported that some states had not consistently notified tribes following registration of a sex offender who plans to live, work, or attend school on tribal land upon release from state prison. This was due, in part, because the states did not have laws or policies that require that tribes be notified. We also found that the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office), within the Department of Justice (DOJ), could do more to encourage states to provide notification to tribes. We recommended that the SMART Office encourage implementing as well as nonimplementing states, to develop policies and procedures to notify tribes about convicted sex offenders who registered or updated a registration with the state--either prior or subsequent to their release from state prison--and indicated that they will be living, working, or attending school on tribal lands. In August 2016, the SMART Office identified actions it has taken to implement our recommendation. First, the SMART Office reported that it had encouraged states during the substantial implementation assurance review process to notify tribes when sex offenders will be released onto their lands. For example, as part of its annual SORNA implementation assurance process, the SMART Office sent a letter to the governors of all states that were substantially implementing SORNA in June 2016, to confirm whether, among other things, the state had a process for notifying tribes of sex offenders who were to be released from prison and planned to live, work, and attend school on tribal land; and to describe the process if it had one. Second, in August 2016, the SMART Office sent an email to all state SORNA contacts to inquire about their process for notifying tribes when sex offenders are to be released. Finally, SMART Office officials reported that they held a symposium in July 2016. According to these officials, approximately 90 tribes and 10 state law enforcement agencies were represented at the event and were provided the opportunity to discuss any difficulties they had encountered in receiving notifications from state prisons. By taking these actions and continuing to engage in broad outreach efforts, the SMART Office has implemented our recommendation and helped to better ensure that tribes receive notification when sex offenders are released from prison and plan to live, work, or attend school on their land.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that tribes that retained their SORNA implementation authority, as well as ineligible and delegated tribes, are notified when convicted sex offenders who intend to live, work, or attend school on tribal land initially register or update a registration, the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs should direct the SMART Office to encourage implementing as well as nonimplementing states, as part of the office's ongoing outreach to these states, to develop policies and procedures to notify tribes that retained their authority to implement SORNA, as well as ineligible and delegated tribes, about convicted sex offenders who registered or updated a registration with the state--either prior or subsequent to their release from state prison--and indicated that they will be living, working, or attending school on tribal lands. As part of this outreach and to help states overcome any barriers to notifying tribes, educate state officials on best practices for overcoming barriers to notifying tribes that the SMART Office has identified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2014, we reported that tribes that retained their authority to implement the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) faced several challenges, and additional assistance from the federal government would be beneficial. We found that even though the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is responsible for assisting and advising all federally recognized tribes regarding their law enforcement and public safety needs, BIA had only offered to assist a select few of the tribes that retained their SORNA implementation authority. Therefore, we recommended that BIA reach out to all tribes that retained their authority to determine if they would like any assistance from BIA. In July 2015, BIA provided documentation showing that in March 2015, the Deputy Associate Director for BIA's Office of Justice Services (OJS) directed all OJS District Offices to contact tribes within their jurisdiction that had retained their SORNA implementation authority to determine if they would like any assistance from BIA. Subsequently, OJS reported providing assistance to several of these tribes. By taking these actions, BIA-OJS has implemented our recommendation and helped to ensure that tribes are able to comply with SORNA requirements.

    Recommendation: To help determine what additional assistance tribes may need to help them toward SORNA implementation, the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs should direct each Office of Justice Services district office to contact the tribes within its district that have retained their implementation authority to determine if the tribes would like BIA to assist them with SORNA implementation efforts. For tribes that would like assistance from BIA, where possible, BIA should provide this assistance or refer the tribe to other resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: Bureau of Indian Affairs

 

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