PHILADELPHIA – By the time he was arrested for sexually assaulting two siblings, 15-year-old J.B. had been molested by his alcoholic father and subjected to 25 moves among his birth, foster and adoptive families. He had also suffered from untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.
Though tried in juvenile court, with its focus on privacy and rehabilitation, he was later required by a 2012 Pennsylvania law to register as a sex offender – branded a long-term danger to society, with no way off the list for at least 25 years.
Juvenile law advocates campaigning against such automatic registries argue that they undermine the rehabilitative purpose of juvenile law and wrongly force judges to treat offenders the same, no matter their circumstances. In Pennsylvania, local judges increasingly agree with them.
Late last year, a central Pennsylvania judge weighing the cases of J.B., as he is known in court documents, and six others found the registration law violated the state constitution. Now the issue is headed to the state high court.
“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 York County. “Fortunately, as is also common with juvenile offenders, they have demonstrated a great capacity and willingness to rehabilitate and make better lives for themselves.”
Judges in two other counties have since ruled similarly, in cases that partially focused on adding offenders to the list after being sentenced.
In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Tuesday, juvenile advocates will argue that the registration requirement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and creates roadblocks for young people trying to rebuild their lives.
Across the country, a growing number of juvenile judges, advocates and policymakers are questioning the effect of the registration mandate Congress passed under the 2006 Adam Walsh Act, named after the Florida boy abducted and killed in 1981. States that don’t comply risk losing millions in federal law enforcement grants.
A few states, including Texas and California, decided it was cheaper to opt out of the Walsh Act, and the Ohio Supreme Court has since found the juvenile registry unconstitutional.
Prosecutors in York County defend the law.
“The standards are not meant to be easy,” said Tim Barker, the chief deputy district attorney. “They were created with an eye toward the protection of the public.”
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the law was forced on states by the funding tie-in. But he said he believes the mandate is appropriate in the most serious cases, including one in his county in which a teen raised amid violent pornography assaulted a 3-year-old neighbor.
“This is a child raised in an environment where it was almost inevitable he was going to become a sex offender,” Freed said. “What that doesn’t change, though, is how broken he is, and how likely he is to reoffend, which is very likely.”
The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which successfully argued J.B.’s case, believes judges need the authority to fashion what they deem appropriate placement and treatment plans.
“That’s very separate and distinct from saying we’re going to put a scarlet ‘A’ on these kids for the rest of their lives,” said Marsha Levick, the center’s chief counsel.
Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission – both critical of juvenile registries – found children lash out sexually for different reasons than adults and are less likely to reoffend. One survey involving about 11,000 young offenders put the recidivism rate at 7 percent, compared with 13 percent for adult sex offenders, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Nearly all other states compile some sort of registry, although 11 states do so only if the juveniles are tried in adult court. Pennsylvania’s law applies to teens 14 to 17 accused of rape, aggravated sexual assault and other serious sex crimes.
In practice, though, lesser pleas are often being negotiated to avoid triggering the reporting mandate, prosecutors and defense attorneys said.
Some states list juvenile offenders on public registries. Pennsylvania’s list is private, but state police can disclose the information to employers and certain other parties. The law allows offenders to get off the list after 25 years.
Human Rights Watch said 747,000 adult and youth sex offenders were registered nationwide as of 2011. It didn’t break out juvenile numbers, but the group said it interviewed 281 youth sex offenders from 20 states.
Also interviewed were two mothers who said their 17-year-olds committed suicide over the registry. Each boy was 12 at the time of his offense.