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PA High Court Finds Lifetime Registration for Juveniles Unconstitutional

February 9, 2015

In the Interest of J.B., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the provision of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) that required offenders to register for the rest of their lives was unconstitutional as applied to minors.

The Court reasoned that the provisions violated the due process rights of juvenile offenders by creating an irrebuttable presumption that all juvenile offenders were highly likely to commit another sexual offense.

SORNA is Title I of the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act and has been adopted by many states including Pennsylvania. SORNA’s registration requirements apply to offenders who were fourteen or older at the time they committed a sexual offense listed in the Act. This case involved the consolidated appeals of seven juveniles who had committed sexual offenses and challenged the statute’s constitutionality.

The Court found that SORNA violated due process protections guaranteed by the federal and state Constitutions by creating an irrebuttable presumption against these juvenile offenders without considering the differences between adults and juveniles or the characteristics of each juvenile offender. Registration requirements were based on a presumed high risk of recidivism, but the juvenile offenders were unable to challenge the presumption that the commission of a listed offense equated to a high risk of committing future offenses.

The Court determined that the presumption on which SORNA was based deprived the juveniles of a constitutionally protected interest. They noted that, unlike the federal Constitution, the Pennsylvania Constitution recognized a fundamental right to reputation. The Court pointed out that the common view of registered sex offenders is that they are dangerous. Additionally, SORNA expressly declared that the juveniles are highly likely to commit additional sexual offenses. The Court also noted that registration makes it difficult for juvenile offenders to find housing, schooling, or employment. Thus, the Court found that the registration requirements infringed upon the juvenile’s constitutionally protected right to reputation.

The Court found that SORNA did not offer juveniles a meaningful opportunity to challenge the presumption that they were likely to reoffend. Instead, a juvenile adjudged delinquent is automatically considered a sexual offender and thus saddled with the presumption that he or she is highly likely to reoffend. The provision allowing for termination of the requirement after twenty-five years did not provide sufficient opportunity to be heard because it focused on compliance with registration requirements and not the likelihood of reoffending. Thus, it did not provide an “opportunity to be heard on the relevant issue.”

The Court found that when applied to juveniles, SORNA’s presumption that sexual offenders are highly likely to commit additional offenses was not universally true. In fact, the Court cited research demonstrating that the vast majority of juvenile sexual offenders are not likely to commit another offense. This research was consistent with general knowledge that juvenile offenders are different from adult offenders – less mature, more vulnerable to negative influence, and less able to control their environment or remove themselves from bad situations. Thus, many juvenile offenses are related more to “immaturity, impulsivity, and sexual curiosity rather than hardened criminality.”

The Court also held that there was a “reasonable alternative means” to determine the likelihood that an individual would commit additional offenses. In fact, SORNA itself provided for individualized assessment of sexual offenders in order to designate “sexually violent predators.” It also provided for assessment of juveniles committed to an institution to determine whether continued detention is necessary. Both assessments were already in use in Pennsylvania. The Court held that a similar system could allow for individualized assessments to determine which juvenile offenders were highly likely to commit future offenses.

Thus, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that SORNA’s lifetime registration requirements were unconstitutional as applied to juvenile offenders.

NOTE: It should be noted that Georgia does not follow SORNA and provides for no sex offender registration for any offense adjudicated in juvenile court. This approach provides for the most liberal treatment of juvenile sexual offenders and hopefully provides them with the greatest potential to succeed without the stigma associated with sex offender registration.

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