Pennsylvania high court strikes down law on juvenile sex offenders

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 02, 2015 6:05 PM

By David DeKok

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional a requirement that all sex offenders who were juveniles at the time of their crimes must stay on the so-called Megan’s Law Registry for life, adding it was also unnecessary for public safety.

In a 5-1 ruling hailed by juvenile justice advocates, the court upheld a 2013 decision by a York County judge striking down portions of the Sexual Offenders Registration and Notification Act, known as SORNA.

“We conclude that SORNA’s registration requirements violate juvenile offenders’ due process rights,” Justice Max Baer wrote in his opinion.

It was the first state high-court decision to cite harm to the child offenders as one of the reasons the law could not stand, said Nicole Pittman, a senior fellow at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Pittman is the author of “Raised on the Registry,” a study of 500 children around the nation who went on the sexual offenders registry as young as 8-years-old.

Baer’s opinion said the law was unconstitutional because it allowed no appeal and assumed that all juvenile sex offenders posed a high risk of committing additional crimes as adults. Studies have shown that barely 1 percent of them commit new crimes, he wrote, and placing them on the list harmed their chances for rehabilitation.

He said the legislature might have avoided trouble if it had required due-process hearings to examine the potential for rehabilitation before a juvenile sex offender could be placed on Megan’s list.

The law mandating such a registry was originally enacted in New Jersey and was named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old murdered by a convicted sex offender in 1994. The name has been adopted by other states for their sex offender registries.

Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Adam Reed said 304 persons convicted as juveniles are presently on the state's Megan’s Law Registry.

Their fate remains unsettled. The judge in the original York County case ordered seven juveniles to be removed from the list, but the state police have not decided what to do about others, said Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed.

In addition to subjecting them to public scorn, being on the list required juvenile sex offenders to report in person quarterly to the state police, and to report changes of address, school, job, or personal appearance within three days.

Offenders could not appeal being placed on the list, but could petition to be removed after 25 years.

“The law definitely made it harder to convict juvenile sex offenders, because judges knew about the lifetime registration requirement,” said Freed, who is a former president of the Pennsylvania Association of District Attorneys. “But there are certain cases in which lifetime registration is entirely appropriate.”

(Editing By Frank McGurty and Andre Grenon)