Juvenile Law Center

December 20, 2012

In Adopting Punitive Sex Offender Law, Pennsylvania Takes Giant Step Backward in Protecting Children

posted by Juvenile Law Center

Today is a dark day for Pennsylvania’s children. After spending the last two years enacting a series of measures to improve how we treat our children, Pennsylvania took a giant step backward in adopting a punitive and unreasonable law incorrectly stigmatizing youth for life. Act 111, which goes into effect today, unnecessarily places certain juveniles on a lifetime sex offender registry.

Act 111 was enacted in response to the federal Adam Walsh Act, passed by Congress in 2006 after the high-profile abduction and murder of a child. States that do not comply with the Act are at risk of losing 10% of their funding under the Justice Assistance Grant program. The Act expanded the breadth of registration and notification laws for all individuals convicted of sex offenses. Most importantly, it subjects youth who are adjudicated delinquent to the same registration requirements as convicted adult sex offenders.

The law casts a wide net, bringing into its reach children who do not in any way represent the adult child-predators it is intended to address. The law does little to improve public safety and ignores Supreme Court jurisprudence on treating juveniles differently. It disregards established literature on adolescent development. It mistakenly assumes that juvenile sex offenses belong in the same category as that of adults.

It is well documented that juvenile offending—especially sex offending—is inherently different from that of adults. There is no empirical relationship between juvenile sex crimes and adult sex crimes. Juvenile sex offending does not predict adult sex offending. Over 92% of all individuals who committed a sex offense as a juvenile do not commit another sex offense. Kids tend to mature out of sexual offending behavior and are not likely to commit another sexual offense. Federal requirements in the Adam Walsh Act do not have a significant influence on recidivism rates.

Moreover, data overwhelmingly show that subjecting juveniles to long-term registration and notification policies does nothing to improve community safety, but does create unintended harmful effects on the youth themselves. Numerous critics, including law enforcement officials, have observed the unintended and punitive consequences that result when youth are enveloped in a law enforcement program designed for adults convicted of sexual offenses. 

For those reasons, a number of states have rejected the Act’s funding incentives and excluded juveniles from their sex offender registries. These states have accepted the common-sense view that children are different and thus require different treatment under the law. Other states have taken measures to lessen the punitive effect of the law, while still remaining in compliance with the federal mandates; they hold that juveniles cannot be placed on a registry until after they have completed their rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system and the court holds a hearing to determine whether registration is necessary to protect the public interest.   

The law that Pennsylvania adopted to comply with the Adam Walsh Act, however, requires registration by juveniles age 14 and older who are adjudicated delinquent for rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, or the conspiracy or attempt to commit one of those offenses, and who live, work or attend school in Pennsylvania. These youth must register for life on a non-public sex offender registry. The law has reporting requirements that are nearly impossible to meet and imposes adult felony convictions on individuals who are unable to comply. 

Recently, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory lifetime sentences for youth, stating its rationale as inapplicable to juveniles for whom the Constitution requires individualized determinations regarding criminal sanctions. The same rationale applies to so-called juvenile “sex offenders,” as registration is automatic and lasts a lifetime without an individualized determination of its necessity. 

The three branches of Pennsylvania government have worked hard to repair the Commonwealth’s tarnished reputation for its treatment of children. However, in adopting Act 111, it harms the life chances of children, without any compelling reason. Kids are different.    

Tags:Juvenile and Criminal Justice