By Matt Miller
In a decision that seems destined for the appeals courts, a York County judge has ruled unconstitutional a two-year-old Pennsylvania law that imposes lifetime registration requirements on juvenile sex offenders.
Senior Judge John C. Uhler issued his ruling against the juvenile registration provisions of the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act while weighing the cases of seven county teens adjudicated as having committed serious sex crimes.
Uhler found that the registration mandate "unconstitutionally forecloses a court's considerations of the many unique attributes of youth and juvenile offenders" under age 18 and improperly treats them the same as adult sex offenders.
SORNA, as the act is known, also doesn't take into account the greater capacity juvenile offenders have to reform, he noted.
The state law was passed by the Legislature in late 2011 to comply with a federal law, the Adam Walsh Act. The state faced a loss of federal funding if it didn't adopt a measure compatible with the Walsh Act.
Uhler's ruling is in reply to a challenge mounted on behalf of the seven York County youths by the county public defender's office, the Juvenile Law Center and the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The children involved were subject to registration after being found to have committed crimes including rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault. They were ages 14 to 17 when the offenses occurred.
In a statement issued Thursday, officials of the Juvenile Law Center and the defender association called Uhler's decision a "landmark ruling."
"It is our hope that this decision will result in similar findings across the commonwealth," said Riya Saha Shah, a staff attorney with the law center. "To impose this (registration) punishment on children is to set them up for failure."
- The same can be said for adults!
County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker said his office is reviewing Uhler's decision for a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court. A decision is expected next week, he said.
"We're thoroughly going through everything," Barker said.
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association, predicted an appeal is likely. Prosecutors are well aware of arguments for and against the juvenile sex offender registration requirement, he said.
"I'm not surprised that the judge would rule this way," Freed said. "We'll see what happens in the appeals courts."
"We'll see what happens in the appeals courts." - Cumberland County DA David Freed, president of the Pa. District Attorneys Association
He said it is often difficult to obtain adjudications for juveniles on serious sex crimes because judges know the lifetime registration requirement will apply.
In his decision, Uhler cited studies that juvenile sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than adults who commit sex crimes. SORNA unjustly paints adult and youth offenders with the same brush, he concluded.
- Adult ex-offenders already have a low recidivism rate of 5% or below.
"These provisions were enacted despite a minimal legislative history with regard to how they would impact juvenile offenders, or whether such provisions are necessary with regard to juveniles," the judge wrote.
"The court finds that juvenile sex offenders are different than their adult counterparts...that the rate of recidivism of juvenile sex offenders is low (so is the adult recidivism rate), that they are likely to have their registration status made public and that they are likely to suffer various forms of irreparable harm as a result of being required to register," Uhler found.
In ruling in favor of the seven York County youths, he ordered state police to remove them from the sex offender registry.
Juvenile Law Center and defender association officials said two other similar cases are pending before judges in Lancaster and Monroe counties.
"We agree that all children who act out sexually should be held accountable, but they should also get treatment," said Aaron Marcus, an assistant defender with the defenders association. "All children deserve a chance to grow up and move on with their lives."
- So do adults!