Juvenile Court Judge Finds Juvenile Sex Offender Registration Law Unconstitutional Under State and Federal Law

Juvenile Law Center,

Philadelphia, PA - In a landmark ruling for Pennsylvania, York County Court of Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler ruled yesterday that Pennsylvania's recently enacted law requiring that juveniles convicted of sexual offenses be subjected to lifetime sex offender registration, violates their rights under various provisions of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions, as well as Pennsylvania's Juvenile Act.

In the final hours of 2011, and as a means to retain maximum federal funding, the Pennsylvania legislature hastily passed the law in order to come into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act. In doing so, the legislature incorrectly treated youthful offenders the same as adult sex offenders. As such, youthful offenders would be subject to the same requirements as adults under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA)

Rooting his opinion in the still prevailing principles of the juvenile justice system, Judge Uhler refused to permit the legislature to impose disproportionate lifetime penalties for acts committed as a child. Judge Uhler wrote. “As is all too common with juvenile sex offenders, their lives too have been marred by tragedies, traumas, addictions, abuse, and personal victimization. Fortunately, as is also common with juvenile offenders, they have demonstrated a great capacity and willingness to rehabilitate and make better lives for themselves.”

“Since the Commonwealth enacted its first Juvenile Court Act in 1901, followed by the Juvenile Court Act of 1972… the overarching goal of Pennsylvania's Juvenile Court system has been to protect the public ‘by providing for the supervision, care, and rehabilitation of children who commit delinquent acts through a system of balanced and restorative justice’," he continued. “The belief that ‘sex offenders are a very unique type of criminal’ is not supported with respect to juvenile offenders. The Court finds that juvenile sex offenders are different than their adult counterparts… that the rate of recidivism of juvenile sex offenders is low.”

Praising the decision, Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel for Juvenile Law Center who argued the case in court, noted, "Kids are different. As recognized by the US Supreme Court and as dictated by research, children may not be punished like adults in our justice system. As a court of second chances, juvenile court cannot impose lifetime penalties on children who we know are uniquely capable of turning their lives around and contributing to their communities."

Because the law was passed so quickly, and without proper discussion regarding juveniles, the legislature did not consider well established research findings pertaining to the underlying causes, low recidivism rates and successful rehabilitation of youthful sex offenses.  The law unfairly, unnecessarily, and permanently branded youth as sex offenders for life, severely limiting their chances of becoming productive members of society – the exact opposite goal of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act.

“This decision confirms that SORNA is extraordinarily punitive, especially when applied to children, whose offense patterns are starkly different than predatory adult sex-offenders,” says Riya Saha Shah, Staff Attorney at Juvenile Law Center. “It is our hope that this decision will result in similar findings across the Commonwealth. The vast and onerous registration requirements are nearly impossible to navigate, even for an adult.  To impose this punishment on children is to set them up for failure - a failure that will lead to mandatory years of incarceration under the statute.”  

Judge Uhler banned application of the law both retroactively and prospectively, immediately declassified as 'sex offenders' the seven petitioners who brought the challenge,  and ordered the State Police to immediately remove the seven children from the state registry.

“When people hear that someone is a ‘sex offender,’ they naturally assume that the person is a danger to society.   In the case of children, all of the research studies prove that this is just not true,” says Aaron Marcus, Assistant Defender, Defender Association of Philadelphia. “We agree that children who act out sexually should be held accountable, but they should also get treatment.  All children deserve a chance to grow up and move on with their lives.”

Two additional cases are pending in Lancaster and Monroe counties regarding the SORNA registration requirements now required by Pennsylvania law.

Petitioners were represented by Marsha L. Levick and Riya Saha Shah from Juvenile Law Center; Barbara Lee Krier and Anthony J. Tambourino from the York County Public Defender Office; and Private attorneys Korey Leslie, Tracey McPate, and Kurt Blake.  The Defender Association of Philadelphia appeared as amicus curiae.

Juvenile Law Center is the oldest national, non-profit, public interest law firm to advance and protect the rights and well-being of children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Juvenile Law Center is also a resource for other legal advocacy groups across the nation.  For more information, please call Marie Yeager at 717-817-3333 or visit www.jlc.org

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Karissa Phelps, Esq., MSW, Stoneleigh Foundation Emerging Leader Fellow, Temple Legal Aid,