By Samantha Melamed
In Pennsylvania, juvenile offenders have the right to a second chance. Perpetrators of homicide, assault, you name it — they’re all eligible for expungement. The one exception, beginning this December: Those who were 14 and older when adjudicated guilty of rape, aggravated indecent assault or involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
Juvenile advocates say the policy, signed into law this month as Act 91, could be devastating. They say the bulk of cases are kids who acted out sexually within their families; some are themselves victims of abuse, and many pled guilty with the promise of a chance for expungement. “Parents may have encouraged kids to plead guilty because it was intra-family; they were entitled to expungement. Now, they can never get their records expunged,” says Jennifer Lutz, juvenile-justice policy analyst at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
Typically, juveniles are eligible for expungement five years after discharge from supervision, or at age 18. Without expungement, juvenile records may prove a barrier to employment, education and, for sex offenders, access to public housing.
Robert Listenbee, chief of the Defender Association’s Juvenile Unit, says his office’s expungement project (for offenses of all types) has handled 600 to 800 cases a year since 2007. The DA is often cooperative. “They believe children should receive a second chance, the same way we do,” he says.
Now, for those seeking expungements of sex offenses, the clock is winding down.
Act 91 is designed to comply with the state’s new Sexual Offenders Registration and Notification Act, which will require juvenile sex offenders to register for the first time ever in Pennsylvania. But even juveniles who wouldn’t have to register will be blocked from expungement, notes Riya Shah, staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center.
Nicole Pittman of Human Rights Watch says “a lot of these laws made in Harrisburg are meant to catch Philadelphia children.” Expungement efforts like the Defender Association’s, she says, caused “alarm for a lot of people, thinking that children that committed sex offenses were going to be hidden.”
Yet she says there’s no benefit to exposing them, because juvenile sex offenders are unlikely to re-offend as adults. The recidivism rate is estimated at between 3 percent and 7 percent. “Juvenile sex offending is very different from adult sex offending, and this movement toward public notification … is trying to fit the solution that has been created for adults to juveniles,” says Shah. “It’s not a good fit.”