The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday on whether juveniles can be required to register as sex offenders.
Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center will argue on behalf of the teen known as J.B. and six other young people from York County who are required to register as sex offenders for anywhere from 25 years to the rest of their lives.
“The recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders in Pennsylvania is under 2 percent. So the harm that the Legislature believes it is addressing by requiring juveniles to register for life is mythical,” she said.
Since 2012, when the state changed its law to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Act, juveniles between 14 and 17 convicted of certain categories of sex crimes are required to register as sex offenders and follow all the same requirements as adults. These range from in-person reporting to disclosing online user names.
Forensic psychiatrist Elena del Busto, who has submitted testimony supporting the Juvenile Law Center, argues that teens reoffend at very different rates that adults.
“Most adolescents who do commit sexual crimes have different motivations than adults,” she said. “This is during their adolescent period where there’s a lot of sexual curiosity, so they’re experimenting with sex and tend to have impulsive behaviors which lead to poor judgment […] they usually never reoffend, compared to adults who have fixed patterns of deviant sexual thoughts.”
The president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Dave Freed, points out that the law is already limited to juveniles who have committed the most serious crimes.
“The tough part of the federal mandate for anyone involved in the system is the blanket requirement that every juvenile convicted of these offense is treated equally,” he acknowledged. “There are a couple cases from my county where I don’t relish the fact that I have juveniles who are lifetime registrants but I believe it’s necessary because without that designation and without continued services, they will reoffend.
“I think there are other cases where prosecutors recognize that the likelihood of reoffense is small,” he said.
The Legislature imposed the registration requirement under the threat of losing federal funding, but Levick said federal law permits continued funding if the court finds the requirement unconstitutional.