Criminal Law

The History of Sex Offender Registration Laws

By John McCurley, Attorney
An overview of how sex offender registration laws evolved over time.

The District of Columbia and all 50 states now have laws requiring persons convicted of sex offenses to register with local law enforcement. Here’s an overview of how these laws evolved.

Early state laws

In a few states, sex offender registration has been around for quite some time. California, for instance, has had sex offender registration laws on the books since 1947. And Nevada first enacted sex registration requirements in 1961. However, as of the early 1990s, the vast majority of states still had no sex offender registry.

Jacob Wetterling Act

In 1994, in the wake of a high-profile child abduction case, the federal government passed the Wetterling Act. The Wetterling Act required states—as a condition of receiving certain federal funding—to adopt sex offender registration laws. The Act also set minimum standards for state registration laws that specified:

  • which offenses required registration
  • what identifying information state registries must include, and
  • the lengths of registration requirements.

A later amendment to the Wetterling Act—often called the federal “Megan’s Law”—additionally required states to release information about specific sex offenders when necessary to protect the public.

Adam Walsh Act and SORNA

The Adam Walsh Act—which ultimately replaced the Wetterling Act—was enacted by the federal government in 2006. The portion of the Act that pertains to sex offender registration is known as the “Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act” (SORNA). SORNA gives the current framework for sex offender registration laws. And, like with the Wetterling Act, states risk losing federal funds if they don’t comply with SORNA requirements.

SORNA does much of what the Wetterling Act did: It specifies which offenses require registration, the information that state registries must include, and the lengths of registration requirements. However, SORNA expanded sex offender registration requirements and provided more comprehensive guidelines for states to follow. SORNA also lead to greater uniformity among state registration laws. (Read more about who must register under SORNA’s requirements and what sex offender registration entails.)

Go to the main sex offender registration FAQ page.
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