Juvenile Law Center and SPLC Sue Alabama Officials to Remove Sex offender Label for Children

Back of teen sitting on swing, looking forlorn

Herbert Stevens met Candi Stevens at a local skating rink. He was 14 and she was 12. 

Over time, the two started dating, going out on movie dates, hanging out with friends at each other’s houses, and attending school dances together.

Eventually, the high school sweethearts got married, bought a house, and had three children. They’ve been married for over 20 years now.

This otherwise happy love story has a sad twist: When Herbert was 17 and Candi was 15, her mother – on the advice of her stepfather, who did not approve of the budding relationship – called the police and had Herbert arrested for statutory rape.

Under an extremely restrictive Alabama state law, Herbert was tried and convicted in the adult criminal justice system of second-degree rape because Candi was a minor.

His conviction had devastating consequences. Herbert spent over 15 years in prison and was forced to register as an adult sex offender on the state’s registry. Alabama’s sex offender registration law requires children tried in the adult system to register as sex offenders on a public registry, with quarterly reporting duties, and notification to their community of their status as registered sex offenders.

As a registered sex offender, Herbert has been prevented from finding steady employment, has missed his son’s graduation from basic military training, and has been denied the ability to pick up his children from school. That has been especially hard for their children, who are now 12, 15 and 19, according to Candi. “They still don’t understand why he can’t come to the school,” she said.

Herbert’s duty to register has set up a series of hurdles that make it harder for him and his wife to raise their family. Herbert and Candi have had to move their family farther from work because of stringent residency restrictions on where registered sex offenders can live.

“It’s hard to find jobs,” said Herbert. “It’s kind of crazy. It’s like a rope holding me back my whole life.”

Herbert Stevens is one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit Juvenile Law Center and Southern Poverty Law Center filed today against Alabama state officials for implementing the Alabama Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Act (SORNA). The law, which went into effect in July 2011, requires individuals who have been convicted of sex crimes as adults to register as sex offenders for their entire lives, even if they were children when the offenses were committed. It also gives the plaintiffs virtually no chance of ever being removed from the registry, which blocks them from getting jobs, interferes with normal family relationships and functions and heavily restricts housing opportunities.

Another client, Randy Pennington, was charged with rape when he had consensual sex with a married 16-year-old girl. He was 16 years old at the time. Her husband reported him to law enforcement and Randy was charged with rape. An appointed attorney urged Pennington to plead guilty to sex abuse in the first degree. He received a three-year sentence and served one year in the county jail, plus two years on probation. After his release, Randy got married.

Nearly 20 years later, Randy received a call from the sheriff’s office informing him that there was a warrant for his arrest for failure to register under SORNA. In 2008, he pled guilty to the SORNA violation and received three years of probation.  The court also informed him that his home did not meet the SORNA residence requirements, and then ordered him to move within 10 days. Forced to move out of his family’s home, he stayed in his friend’s camper at a campground in Talladega County, Alabama, while his family remained in the home.

To make matters worse, he was continuously harassed by people living nearby who had read his profile on the sex offender registry. It incorrectly listed him as a 52-year-old man who had sex with a 16-year-old girl – failing to note that he himself was also 16 at the time of the incident.

“As a teenager, I pled guilty to a three-year charge, and 30 years later I’m being punished with a life sentence,” he said. “I wasn’t a real good kid at the time, but I was a kid. It turned my whole life upside down. I’m just trying to make a better life for myself and my family.”

The SORNA law imposed on Randy and Herbert does not take into account the age of the child at the time of the offense, how youth-based characteristics affect children’s decision-making, or the child’s potential for rehabilitation, according to the lawsuit, Pennington v. Taylor. The Alabama law fails to acknowledge well-established scientific research, now embedded in case law, that children are different from adults and must be treated as such under the law.

Alabama SORNA requires children convicted as adults under the law to comply with extensive registration and notification requirements. They must appear in person to local law enforcement in each county there they live every three months and pay a registration fee of $10 each time. At each visit, they must provide personal information such as date of birth, Social Security information, address, employer’s address, telephone numbers, email addresses, fingerprints, palm prints, and even DNA. Their names, addresses, children’s school addresses, employment addresses, license plates, photographs, physical descriptions and criminal histories are all included on the sex offender website for anyone to see. This denies them the right to be reformed, the lawsuit states.

The suit names Hal Taylor, secretary of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency; John Q. Hamm, director of the state Bureau of Investigation; Charles Ward, director of the state Department of Safety; and Steve Marshall, attorney general of Alabama, as defendants.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate Alabama’s SORNA law as it applies to children tried as adults, because the law violates constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and against punishments enacted and enforced long after the crime was committed. Alabama’s SORNA law also violates the U.S Constitution’s requirement for due process and equal protection under the law. Further, the lawsuit states that SORNA violates the Alabama Constitution by harming the plaintiffs’ rights to reputation because the law unfairly characterizes them as dangerous sex offenders who are likely to reoffend, when research conclusively demonstrates otherwise.

In 2014, Juvenile Law Center successfully challenged Pennsylvania’s sex offender registration law as applied to children. Pennsylvania’s SORNA likewise subjected children to mandatory lifetime registration, onerous reporting requirements, and mandatory penalties, including incarceration, for lapses in registration. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the lifetime registration, imposed without consideration of the future likelihood of reoffending, violated the due process clause of the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. This decision confirmed the punitive and harmful effects of registration, which are replicated in states across the country.

“Children develop into their best selves when provided guidance, rehabilitation, and support,” said Jonathan Barry-Blocker, staff attorney for the SPLC. “Neither they, nor our communities, are best served by the excessive, lifelong punishments designed for mature adults. Therefore, we are challenging this unfair practice of subjecting children tried as adults to Alabama’s oppressive registration requirements.”

Regardless of the age of the child at the time of the offense or plaintiffs’ experiences after incarceration—including loss of steady employment, social and familial relationships—SORNA’s restrictions are imposed for life, even if they do not commit any further offenses.

“The fact that children are categorically less culpable than adults and less deserving of the harshest punishments our criminal justice system imposes highlights the unfairness of automatic, public, lifetime registration and underscores the devastating cost of that requirement when the law is used to impose an adult consequence against a child,” the lawsuit states.

“This litigation aims to end the profoundly harmful and unnecessary practice of registering youth as sex offenders,” said Riya Saha Shah, Managing Director for Juvenile Law Center. “Alabama’s sex offender registration law offers youth no exit from the registry, which will substantially impede their ability to transition successfully to adulthood and lead productive and fulfilling lives. Lifetime registration, like that imposed on our clients, disrupts an individual’s ability to work, build relationships, and be present in their children’s lives outside the home. We are happy to be partnering with the SPLC to challenge this punitive practice.

We need your support to continue this fight to eliminate registration for children all across the country. Please consider becoming a monthly donor today and helping us in this fight.

About the Expert

Riya Saha Shah is a Senior Managing Director of Juvenile Law Center. Riya began her career at Juvenile Law Center in 2005 as a Sol and Helen Zubrow Fellow in Children’s Law. In her role as a Senior Managing Director, Riya serves on the organization’s Management Team and is a leader in Juvenile Law Center’s programmatic justice work. Since the beginning of her legal career, Riya has engaged in litigation, policy advocacy, and amicus efforts to reduce the harm of the juvenile and criminal legal system.