Pennsylvania Should Repeal Juvenile Sex Offender Registration Law

Juvenile Law Center,

In December 2011, Pennsylvania enacted its version of the federal Adam Walsh Act—a piece of draconian legislation that will require up to lifetime registration for Pennsylvania juveniles convicted of sex offenses. The General Assembly passed the law, and the Governor signed it, despite a steady and persistent chorus of dissent from leading child advocates across the state and nation. Why would children's advocates raise concerns about a new law that ostensibly aims to protect children? Because the law has the potential to destroy more lives than it will protect, while robbing Pennsylvania taxpayers of critical resources.

Here's the problem. The new law requires youth as young as 14 to be treated the same as adults and register as sex offenders if they are charged with certain offenses. This is a gross overreaction since research shows that only about 5% of adolescents re-offend—roughly one-third the recidivism rate of adult sex offenders. Indeed, some recent studies show a reoffense rate of only 1% for juveniles. The Pennsylvania General Assembly, like much of the public, incorrectly believes that "sex offenses" committed by youth are the same as the predatory sex crimes committed by adults.

In fact, there is no established connection between juvenile sex offending and adult sex offending. Even if juveniles charged with sex crimes reoffend, the probabilities are high that the new offense will be a property crime, or an offense that has no connection to sex offending. Current sanctions meted out by the juvenile justice system can address this conduct. To the extent that juvenile sex offending is "normative"—part of sexual exploration that is part of child development and maturation—it is something that most teens naturally outgrow. It is this same changeability of adolescence that makes teens different from adults in an important way—they are much more amenable to interventions that will change their behavior and reduce future risk.

Registration is a crude, ineffective tool for combating sex offending by adolescents. A South Carolina study found that registration not only failed to reduce reoffending, but also put youth at risk for unfounded accusations and arrests that were subsequently dismissed. The state registry doubled the stigma imposed on juvenile sex offenders with no benefit to the public.

Adolescents are not adults—and troubled teenagers should never be confused with violent sexual offenders or predators. As citizens, we should have a right to information about adults who are violent sex offenders, and fortunately those safeguards are already in place under current Pennsylvania sex offender registration laws. But treating teenagers the same way we treat adult sex offenders is not only irresponsible; it is harmful to the youth themselves and has the potential to create greater risk to our communities by creating self-fulfilling prophecies. This happens when youth who are not sex offenders are labeled as such. Youth who have to report their wherabouts every few months, and provide photographs and other identifiers as they age, will soon be identifying themselves as "sex offenders." This does not contribute to healthy adolescent development.

Pennsylvania's move to comply with the Adam Walsh Act was also purportedly done to save money. Pennsylvania stood to lose approximately $900,000 in federal grant funding if it didn't comply with Adam Walsh. Unfortunately, this is a false savings. The cost of monitoring youthful offenders who are highly unlikely to reoffend was never considered. The long-term price tag to implement and maintain juvenile sex offender registrations for 25 years will far exceed the short-term $900,000 gained. This cost will fall on Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Additionally, youth who would have been 95%-99% more likely to become productive members of society are, instead, branded as sex offenders, severely hampering their ability to lead normal, productive lives. Registration hampers education, employment, social standing, relationships, and emotional stability. Pennsylvania taxpayers will lose what should have been one of their most valuable commodities—youth who can become productive, taxpaying members of the community.

Nor will public safety be improved. On the contrary: research shows that youth who are unnecessarily pulled deeper into the justice system end up becoming more of a threat to public safety, not less. This law will likely have a negative effect on public safety.

All of these facts were presented to the General Assembly by Juvenile Law Center and other children's advocates across the state. But getting a law passed quickly—before the December 31, 2011 Adam Walsh deadline—took priority, and legislators promised to "fix it later." Later is now. Juvenile Law Center is calling on the General Assembly to follow through on the promise to "fix it later"--before this law casts its long, expensive shadow on the futures of Pennsylvania's youth.