Criminal Law

Sex Offender Registration: An Overview

By John McCurley, Attorney
Who's required to register, what registration means, and the penalties for breaking the rules.

In some states, sex offender registration has been around for a long time. For other states, sex offender registration laws are relatively new. But currently, Washington D.C. and all 50 states have registration statutes on the books that require persons convicted of certain sex offenses to register. (Read more about how sex registration laws evolved.)

Every state is allowed to craft its own sex offender registration rules. But federal law (“Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act” (SORNA)) sets the minimum standards. States that don’t abide by the federal minimums risk losing federal funds.

Who Must Register?

SORNA requires registration for certain criminal convictions. The offenses that trigger the registration requirement include crimes like:

  • sex assault
  • rape
  • child molestation, and
  • offenses involving child pornography.

Federal and state criminal convictions can lead to registration. And, in addition to completed crimes, a person can be required to register for attempting or conspiring to commit a registerable offense.

(Read more about which adult and juvenile offenders are subject to sex offender registration.)

What Does Registration Consist Of?

Sex offenders must register with law enforcement in each jurisdiction where they live, work, or attend school. For many registrants, this requires registering in more than one place. Registrants must also update their registration periodically—generally, anywhere from one to four times per year. The duty to register is typically a 15-year to lifetime requirement.

For many offenders, the worst part about registration is having their profile posted on the Internet. SORNA requires all states to maintain a “Megan’s Law” website where information about each registrant—including a photograph and address—is available to the public.

(Learn more about what sex offender registration entails.)

Failure to Register

For the class of offenders who are required to register, failing to do so is a crime. Registrations who fail to update their registrant or promptly notify law enforcement of changes to residential, employment, or student status can also be charged with a crime.

The penalties for failing to register vary by jurisdiction. However, the consequences are generally harsh. In New Jersey, for instance, failure to register is a third-degree crime. A conviction potentially carries three to five years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines. And a defendant who’s convicted of failure to register in federal court faces up to ten years in prison and/or a maximum $250,000 in fines. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:7-2, 2C:43-3, 2C:43:6 (2017); 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 2250, 3571 (2017).)

(Read more about failure to register, including what the prosecution must prove for a conviction.)

Go to the main sex offender registration FAQ page.
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