Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules Sex Offender Registration Unconstitutional for Youth
Pennsylvania’s highest court recently ruled that lifetime registration of juveniles under the Pennsylvania Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) is unconstitutional.
In affirming the ruling of York County Senior Judge John C. Uhler, the Supreme Court on December 29, 2014 held that SORNA’s registration requirements violate juvenile offenders’ due process rights by utilizing the irrebuttable presumption that all juvenile offenders “pose a high risk of committing additional sexual offenses.”
Grounding its opinion in the due process guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment and key provisions of Pennsylvania’s Constitution, Justice Max Baer, writing for the majority, ruled that the juveniles’ constitutionally-protected right to reputation is encroached upon by an irrebuttable presumption of future offending that is not universally true and where a reasonable alternative means exists for determining the presumed fact.
While adult sexual offenders have a high likelihood of reoffense, juvenile sexual offenders exhibit low levels of recidivism.
“While adult sexual offenders have a high likelihood of reoffense, juvenile sexual offenders exhibit low levels of recidivism… many of those who commit sexual offenses as juveniles do so as a result of impulsivity and sexual curiosity. [T]he vast majority of youth are unlikely to recidivate,” wrote Justice Baer. Relying on both state and national data to support its holding, the Court also noted that this research is corroborated by recent U.S. Supreme Court precedents, finding that children are distinctly different from adults. The Court reasoned that in the area of sexual offenses “many acts of delinquency involve immaturity, impulsivity, and sexual curiosity rather than hardened criminalist.”
The Court determined that the juveniles’ right to reputation is protected by the Pennsylvania Constitution and designation as a juvenile sex offender impinges that right. As the majority observed, “[T]he common view of registered sexual offenders is that they are particularly dangerous and more likely to reoffend than other criminals,” and that “SORNA explicitly declares that sexual offenders, including juvenile offenders ‘pose a high risk of committing additional sexual offenses.’” In a single dissent, Justice Correale Stevens stated that “SORNA does not per se violate a juvenile’s constitutionally protected interest in his or her reputation, for SORNA does not speak to an individual’s likeliness to reoffend.”
The Court found that the label also negatively affects children’s “ability to obtain housing, schooling, and employment, which in turn hinders their ability to rehabilitate,” noting the onerous reporting requirements necessary for youth on the registry. Although the law provides for the child to petition for removal from the registry after twenty-five years, the Court held that is not a “meaningful opportunity” to challenge the presumption.
Next, the Court held that the presumption that sexual offenders pose a high risk recidivating is not “universally true” when applied to juvenile offenders. The Court held that this violated due process by establishing an irrebuttable presumption about future dangerousness. The Court relied upon prior holdings, including a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case in which Juvenile Law Center successfully challenged the automatic exclusion of juveniles returning from delinquency placement from regular public school classrooms. In D.C. v. School District of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth Court agreed that the students’ due process rights were violated absent a meaningful opportunity to challenge the presumption that students who returned from delinquency placement posed a threat to the traditional classroom setting.
The Court also reasoned that SORNA contradicts the Juvenile Act’s specified purpose. Specifically, Pennsylvania courts are “mandated to always be watchful of juveniles’ rehabilitation, while also providing accountability to the victim and society,” but “SORNA’s automatic registration removes the juvenile judges’ ability to consider the rehabilitative prospects of individual juvenile sexual offenders.”
Finally, the Court determined that a reasonable alternative means exists to ascertain whether a child poses a high risk of recidivism. Already explicit in SORNA, youth adjudicated delinquent of specified crimes who are committed to an institution nearing their twentieth birthday must be individually assessed to determine whether continued commitment is necessary. The Court also notes that the Oklahoma legislature has a risk evaluation model for juveniles, which requires the district attorney to petition for a specific juvenile to be included in the registry, an independent evaluation, and then a court determination of whether the child must register.
This ruling is a major victory for the children of the Commonwealth, with potential repercussions beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. A majority of states nationwide provide for some type of sex offender registration for juveniles. In acknowledging the low re-offense rates of juveniles adjudicated for sexual offenses, as well as the different character of their offending, the Court’s due process analysis could be influential in other jurisdictions.
The youth were represented by Marsha L. Levick, Riya Saha Shah and Catherine Feeley from Juvenile Law Center; Abigail Horn and Aaron Marcus from Defender Association of Philadelphia; Anthony J. Tambourino and Bruce Piersoll Blocher from the York County Public Defender Office; and private attorneys Korey Leslie, Tracey McPate, and Kurt Blake. Marsha Levick, Juvenile Law Center’s Deputy Director and Chief Counsel, argued the case before the Court.
Link to the opinion here: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/J-44A-2014mo.pdf?cb=2