Court Rules Pennsylvania Sex Offender Registry Unfairly Treats Teens Like Adults

The 5-1 decision stokes a growing nationwide debate over keeping track of children who have committed sex crimes.
by | January 5, 2015 AT 6:50 PM

By Ben Finley

Two years ago, a 15-year-old Bucks County, Pa., boy raped a younger child. He went through juvenile court, was detained, and was added to a state police registry of juvenile sex offenders.

The teen joined about 300 juvenile sex offenders who have been registered under a 2011 law and were expected to stay on the list for at least 25 years.

But last week, the state Supreme Court struck down that requirement, ruling that the law unfairly treated the teens like adults.

Its 5-1 decision, which stemmed from juvenile cases in York County, stokes a growing nationwide debate over keeping track of children who have committed sex crimes.

The justices said the law wrongly assumed that all of the juvenile offenders were likely to commit another sex crime, despite studies that suggest children are less likely than adults to re-offend. That assumption, the court ruled, violated the minors' rights because they could not challenge their automatic placement on the registry.

The state's Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) will "improperly brand all juvenile offenders' reputations with an indelible mark of a dangerous recidivist," Justice Max Baer wrote in the majority opinion.

But the registry's proponents, who include the state district attorneys association, said it protected the community while affecting only a small number of offenders.

"We're talking about the most serious offenses," said Richard Long, the association's executive director. "A significant amount of time [on a registry] was warranted."

In the last 25 years, about 40 states have created registries for at least some of their juvenile sex offenders, according to Nicole Pittman, a senior program specialist with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Pennsylvania created its registry at the direction of the 2006 federal Adam Walsh Act, named after a boy who was kidnapped and murdered in Florida in 1981. The law requires states to update various parts of their sex offender laws -- for instance, by adding juvenile registries -- or risk losing federal funding. (In Pennsylvania, that amounted to about $1 million of a $10 million annual Justice Department grant.)

But in recent years, some states have reconsidered their registries or refused to create one.

Ohio's Supreme Court struck down a lifetime registration requirement for a large number of its juvenile sex offenders in 2012. The same year, Maine lawmakers decided against a registry despite the loss of federal dollars. In 2013, Missouri's legislature passed a bill that would have removed juveniles from its registry, although the governor vetoed it.

At the crux of every decision was the belief that children can be rehabilitated and are unlikely to re-offend as they mature.

Pennsylvania had automatically required registration for teens 14 and older found guilty of sex crimes as juveniles. They had to submit their address, place of employment, and school to police four times a year.

After 25 years, they could get off the registry if they had not committed another sex crime.

Unlike the state's Megan's Law website -- a public site that lists adult sex offenders -- the juvenile registry is accessible only to law enforcement. But Pittman, of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said information on such state registries has leaked out.

The York County case before the Supreme Court involved seven males who had committed crimes as teens that ranged from aggravated indecent assault to involuntary deviant sexual intercourse. In one case, a 15-year-old had molested his siblings.

The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, serving as cocounsel on the case, argued that the registry was an added punishment that did little to protect the community. Among the studies the center cited was a 2013 report from Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges' Commission that found only 2 percent of juveniles who committed a sex offense went on to commit another.

In his dissent, Justice Correale Stevens noted that the legislature had decided it was reasonable to institute the requirement on a "narrowly defined class" of offender and that the high court had no need to interfere. Stevens also pointed out that offenders can be erased from the registry in time, but that their victims might never recover.

"The adjudicated delinquent sex offender's 'right to reputation' under such circumstances should not have precedence over a rape victim's anguish that very well may last a lifetime," he wrote.

Because the Adam Walsh Act allows state courts to strike down their registries, Pennsylvania will not lose any federal funding over the ruling.

And legislators will likely consider a new measure for a registry, said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for incoming House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). Such a law could comply with the court's ruling as long as it did not automatically place offenders on a registry, using a more selective criteria instead.

Pennsylvania already evaluates a small number of juvenile sex offenders on a case-by-case basis. Any who remain in the court system until age 20 must undergo an assessment by the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board to determine whether they are "sexually violent delinquent" people. The adult equivalent is a "sexually violent predator."

Their names and addresses are placed on Pennsylvania's public Megan's Law website, which currently lists 46 sexually violent delinquents.

The 15-year-old who raped the child in Bucks County is now 17 and remains under county supervision, said Robert J. Stanzione, the county's chief juvenile probation officer.

Stanzione said it was hard to predict whether a teen would remain in the system long enough to undergo the state evaluation. Some still actively fantasize about the crime they committed, he said, but most do not.

"The majority of them are not re-offending and get out of the system," he said.

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