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Pennsylvania's Juvenile Sex Offender Registry Is Unconstitutional, State Supreme Court Rules

Justice Max Baer
Justice Max BaerPhotographer: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photos

Pennsylvania’s sex offender registry for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled on Monday. In a 5-1 decision, the court concluded that the state, by making an “irrefutable presumption” about adults’ behavior based on crimes they committed as teens, violated their constitutional right to due process. The current rule, which sees convicted teens added to the registry for at least 25 years, “negatively affects juvenile offenders[’] ability to obtain housing, schooling, and employment, which in turn hinders their ability to rehabilitate,” wrote (PDF) Justice Max Baer. Furthermore, he noted, the rule is “premised upon the presumption that all sexual offenders pose a high risk of recidivating.”

That presumption may be widespread, but it’s not backed up by evidence. “Multiple studies have shown that these policies do not reduce the sexual or non-sexual recidivism rates of youth who have already sexually offended,” says Elizabeth Letourneau, who directs the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Those rates are already very low.” In fact, the recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenses (somewhere in the single digits, according to several studies) is drastically lower than for other crimes, notes Nicole Pittman, a senior program specialist at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. “Children are not fixed in their patterns of offending,” says Pittman. “Children are not static in their nature.”