Lifetime juvenile sex offender registration found unconstitutional in PA

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the juvenile sex offender registration requirements established under the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act are unconstitutional. According to The Patriot-News, the court found that the rule requiring lifetime inclusion on the Megan's Law registry after certain juvenile convictions violates juvenile offenders' rights.

Strict rules under SORNA

SORNA automatically requires juveniles to register as sex offenders for life if they are found guilty of certain offenses after the age of 14. These offenses include rape, aggravated indecent assault and involuntary deviate sexual assault. SORNA gives juveniles the right to request registry removal at age 25 if they have completed treatment programs and have not been convicted of other offenses. Still, critics have questioned whether this lifetime registration violates the rights of convicted juveniles.

Two lower Pennsylvania courts have ruled against the SORNA requirements in two separate cases involving juvenile offenders. The state Supreme Court ultimately upheld one of these rulings, finding that automatic lifetime registration takes away juveniles' rights to due process by unfairly assuming they will offend again.

Pennsylvania authorities currently evaluate convicted adult sex offenders to determine how long they should be registered as sex offenders, based on personal risk of recidivism. In theory, a similar process could be used in the future to find a more appropriate registration period for each juvenile offender.

Understanding juvenile offenses

In part, the state Supreme Court ruling was motivated by the fact that juvenile offenses and adult offenses often occur due to distinct factors. According to ABC News, juveniles are more likely to act instinctively, rather than fully thinking about or understanding their actions, because the juvenile brain is still developing. Differences in brain development and maturity can produce the following behavioral differences:

  • Impetuous decisions
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Mood swings and aggression
  • A less developed sense of responsibility
  • A focus on short-term, rather than future, consequences

Considering these developmental differences, treating juvenile decisions and offenses like adult offenses can be questionable.

A report released earlier this year, which focused on lifetime juvenile sex offender registration in Illinois, illustrated this issue. According to The Washington Post, the report found that juvenile sexual offenses often occur due to developmental or social issues, rather than factors that make recidivism likely, such as sexual deviance or a desire to inflict harm. Treatment for juvenile offenders has proven effective, whereas inclusion on the registry does not appear to reduce the likelihood of future offenses.

According to The Patriot-News, other studies have also shown that, compared to adult offenders, juvenile sex offenders are simply less likely to face convictions for the same type of offense again in the future. This means strict sentencing rules, such as lifetime sex offender registration, may be unnecessarily harsh.

Handling juvenile charges

The recent state Supreme Court ruling, along with general acknowledgements of the differences between adult and juvenile offenses, represents a step in a positive direction. However, a conviction of any juvenile offense, including a sexual offense, can still have life-changing consequences. Juveniles who face criminal charges should consider protecting their rights and long-term interests by seeking legal representation.