Emerald Systems brings a private-sector tribal perspective to sex offender registry

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WASHINGTON - One hundred and ninety-eight tribes have signed up to comply with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which seeks to create a national registry of sex offenders.

Under terms of the law, only tribes under federal criminal jurisdiction can participate; more than half are excluded, and must rely on a state jurisdiction's compliance with AWA, a move many Native people consider a compromise of tribal sovereignty, as well as a setback for timely responsiveness of law enforcement to threats and episodes of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In addition, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, some states are objecting to AWA compliance as an unfunded federal mandate.

In any case, indicates a task force publication, tribes that rely on state compliance with the requirements of AWA could be ''locked out of the national registry'' if their state is out of compliance as of July 2009. For those 198 tribes that want to comply with AWA on their own authority, penalties loom - up to and including enrollment in state registry management regimes - if they don't meet the same deadline.

The key to compliance with AWA, as described by Jim Frank, new business development manager at Emerald Systems Inc., is twofold. First, tribes need access to computer software that will gather a litany of information on sex offenders within tribal territories. Second, tribes must be able to submit the information to the National Crime Information Center, and that requires an access code known as an ORI number (for originating agency identifier).

The FBI houses the NCIC and controls access. State law enforcement offices administer a window to the NCIC through ORI numbers, providing law enforcement personnel with access to the NCIC. Most tribal law enforcement offices don't have an ORI, and without it tribes can't comply with AWA.

''To comply is to get that information through the gate,'' Frank said, adding that no one he knows, as a former law enforcement officer himself, has access to the NCIC. At Emerald Systems, ''we're developing a vehicle [software and a database] to get tribes to the gate. ... But they [the FBI and states] have to get us through the gate by giving us some codes [ORI numbers or an equivalent].''

Though forthcoming guidelines on AWA compliance from the Justice Department may shed more light, Frank said the criteria for accessing NCIC are by no means well-known. ''That's not printed anywhere, or we can't get it.''

Emerald Systems, a security software firm owned by the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, is one of several private-sector enterprises vying to assist tribes with AWA compliance. Because it is tribally owned, president Joe Sperber said Emerald Systems may be able to neutralize the sovereignty issue that has distressed many tribes.

Tribes might be able to provide information for the national AWA registry straight to Emerald Systems, which is separate from the tribe's political organs. Emerald Systems would then pass it to the NCIC (given an ORI) without necessarily ever seeing it. State law enforcement regimes, felt to be an infringement on sovereignty by many tribes, would not be part of a transaction between a sovereign tribe (acting for other tribes) and the federal government.

For tribes that wanted to spare themselves the cost of computer hardware, Sperber explained, Emerald Systems could provide tribes with the proper software and host their AWA information on its own server, accessible only to Emerald Systems' technical assistance personnel - the ''help desk,'' in other words. And because Emerald Systems' databases are Web-based, instead of relying on local software, updates to the AWA-compliant database can be instantaneous, immediately reflecting, for instance, changes in personnel with access privileges, or the changing whereabouts of registered sex offenders.

''It is essentially doing everything the state systems are doing,'' Sperber said of the Emerald Systems database and related software. ''Probably a little more flexibly because it's Web-based and it's real-time.''

Tribal administrators would be responsible for updating their files, and the burden of compliance with NCIC standards would be on tribes.

Sperber emphasized that the advanced computer technology available through Emerald Systems (and supported by Microsoft) opens the door to ''custom solutions'' for tribes. ''That's the beauty of what this technology is. It can be very customized and configurable.''

Emerald Systems would make its profit from subscription fees paid by tribes. But at a March 6 reception in Washington hosted by Lamar Associates, also an Indian-owned security firm, St. Croix councilman Elmer ''Jay'' Emery said several times over that profit isn't the gaming tribe's only consideration.

''If you represent a tribe, and you contact Emerald Systems, St. Croix Tribe - and I know every tribe out there, every tribal leader is worried about cost. The first thing that comes to mind - 'How much does it cost? What's it going to cost us?' And again I will say right now, there's no set price. We will negotiate with tribes, for the best thing for both of us. This is not only about the St. Croix Tribe. This is about Indian country. That's why we're here.''

Another council member at the reception, Big Sand Lake Rep. Michael Decorah, called Emerald Systems a major step for the tribe.

''Not only to step out of the gaming arena and look at other economic development for our tribe ... but I hope that we can really have some Indian partnerships here, hopefully starting today and in the future.''