In the twilight of his career, York County Common Pleas Court Judge John C. Uhler recently cemented his legacy as a legal lion of Pennsylvania with what might amount to a landmark ruling.
It was the right ruling — deeply grounded in constitutional principles. Unfortunately for the judge, though, it’s probably not one that will make him popular among the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd.
In fact, the decision will likely be unpopular among the many people who believe sex offenders should receive death sentences — or at least life without parole.
Indeed, some sex offenders should never again see the outside of a prison cell.
But what about juveniles who commit sex crimes?
Should they — following their time in juvenile detention and treatment — be sentenced to what amounts to a lifetime of strict parole requirements?
In a 41-page opinion invalidating the recently passed Pennsylvania Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), Judge Uhler said no. He determined the lifetime registry and reporting requirements for juveniles are unconstitutional and punitive.
In his decision, the judge relied heavily upon a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles involved in homicides.
Judge Uhler wrote that “children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes … (because of their) diminished culpability and great prospects for reform.”
He noted that research shows recidivism among juvenile sex offenders is quite low.
- And it's low for adults as well.
In Pennsylvania, juvenile courts were created “to provide guidance and rehabilitation for the child and protection for society, not to affix criminal responsibility, guilt and punishment.”
Thus, requiring juvenile offenders who have served their sentences to comply for life with a litany of SORNA guidelines — providing police with extensive information about employment, school enrollment, addresses, social media accounts, etc., and mandating that some offenders report to police every 90 days — is punitive, said the judge.
Granted, some juveniles who have committed egregious sex crimes should face such Megan’s Law-like reporting. But some of these mandates exceed what is required under Megan’s Law.
And what about teens accused of so-called “Romeo and Juliet” type statutory rape, where the age gap between the participants defines the crime? Such offenses probably don’t warrant a lifetime on a sex-offender registry.
York County District Attorney Tom Kearney is rightly appealing Judge Uhler’s decision. As he said, the county court decision needs to be tested at the appellate level.
Yes, it does.
And it should be upheld.
- Law requiring lifetime registration for juvenile sex offenders is unconstitutional, York County judge rules