HARRISBURG, Pa. - The question of whether it is constitutional to require juveniles to register as sex offenders was in the hands of Pennsylvania's highest court on Tuesday after the justices heard from a York County prosecutor who defended the mandate and a lawyer for seven defendants who challenged it.
The court did not indicate when it would rule in the appeal, which hinges on whether the registration requirement is cruel and unusual, whether it illegally harms the juveniles' reputations and whether it violates their due process rights.
"It brands these juveniles as dangerous sexual offenders who are likely to recidivate, and that is contrary to the research," said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center representing the seven.
A York County judge threw out the registration requirement, prompting an appeal by the county prosecutor's office.
Sex offender registration is not a form of punishment, as it "does not impose any affirmative disabilities" on the defendants, said James Zamkotowicz with the York County district attorney's office.
The Legislature passed the registration requirement two years ago to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Act, which linked its adoption to receipt of grant money.
Juveniles who were at least 14 when the offense occurred must register for life - which can be reduced to 25 years - if adjudicated delinquent of rape, aggravated indecent assault or involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
Another element of the law involves a small number of young people who were already under supervision when the registration requirement began, which is being challenged under the principle that laws cannot apply retroactively.
Although the registry isn't automatically published to the public, as it is for adults, it is not kept entirely confidential either and must be released to the federal government upon its request. Levick described its secrecy provisions as "porous."
"They can hold meetings in their town halls and distribute this information," she said.
Zamkotowicz said Pennsylvania state law had previously allowed people to get some basic information about juveniles judged delinquent for serious offenses, including access to their names, ages, addresses and how their cases were disposed.
Levick said the registration law is "wildly overinclusive," given that most juvenile defendants will not re-offend. The law "as written does not take into account the unique attributes of youth," Levick said.
Judges in Monroe and Lancaster counties also have ruled against the registration law recently, although those cases were not directly before the Supreme Court on Tuesday.