The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is weighing whether it's constitutional to force all juvenile sex offenders to sign up with the state sex offender registry. Lawyers say the registration requirement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
As of 2012, Pennsylvania law requires anyone 14 years of age or older who is convicted of rape, aggravated indecent assault, or the conspiracy to commit one of these crimes to register for life with the state's sex offender registry. They can petition for removal from the registry only after 25 years, and only if they've had no subsequent offenses, even of a non-sexual nature.
The case comes before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after an appeal by the state of a lower court's ruling. In November 2013, a judge weighing the case, brought in the interest of seven juvenile sex offenders, ruled that the registration law violated the state constitution.
"As is all too common with juvenile sex offenders, their lives too have been marred by tragedies, traumas, addictions, abuse and personal victimization," wrote Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler in his decision. "Fortunately, as is also common with juvenile offenders, they have demonstrated a great capacity and willingness to rehabilitate and make better lives for themselves."
According to a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), juvenile sex offenders have a recidivism rate of about 7 percent, compared to 13 percent for adult sex offenders (and 45 percent for all crimes). Recidivism concerns are the main reason given for requiring juvenile sex offenders to register long-term with the state.
But as youth offenders try to rebuild their lives, being on the sex offender registries can seriously hinder their chances of doing so. Being on the registry means restrictions on where they can live, work, go to school, and spend time. And once on the registry, juvenile offenders must verify their information in person every 90 days or face mandatory felony prosecution, which carries a prison sentence of at least three to seven years.
Effectively, the requirement can shuffle juvenile offenders back into the prison system for matters unrelated to re-offending, at any time during the next few decades. "These onerous reporting and registration requirements … set up youth for failure and inevitable subsequent criminal court involvement," says the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit juvenile law advocacy organization which argued the case of one of the juvenile offenders.
According to the Associated Press, Pennsylvania judges increasingly agree with juvenile law advocates that automatic registries undermine rehabilitation efforts and force judges to treat all offenders the same, without taking context into account.
Each U.S. state has its own set of sex offender laws and registry requirements, and some are more severe for young offenders than Pennsylvania's. Sex offender registry requiring offenses can range from crimes like rape and molestation to things like public nudity or consensual sex between teens. "Many people assume that anyone listed on the sex offender registry must be a rapist or a pedophile," HRW fellow Nicole Pittman said. "But most states spread the net much more widely."
For a more in-depth look at sex offender registries in the U.S., check out this 2012 report from Reason TV.