Uhler
Uhler

A York County senior judge has ruled it unconstitutional for Pennsylvania to require juvenile sex offenders to comply with lifetime registration on the Megan's Law state registry.

The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center called Senior Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler's Nov. 6 decision a landmark ruling.

Uhler ruled in favor of seven young men who were adjudicated delinquent as juveniles of Megan's Law sexual offenses. In Pennsylvania, juveniles aren't "convicted." Instead, they are determined to be delinquent.

"As is all too common with juvenile sex offenders, their lives too have been marred by tragedies, traumas, addictions, abuse, and personal victimization," Uhler wrote in his ruling, according to a release from the law center. "Fortunately, as is common with juvenile offenders, they have demonstrated a great capacity and willingness to rehabilitate and make better lives for themselves. ... The Court finds that juvenile sex offenders are different than their adult counterparts ... (and) that the rate of recidivism of juvenile offenders is low."

He ordered state police to immediately remove the seven young men's names from the state Megan's Law registry.

The law: The state's Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) was passed in 2011 to bring the state into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act, according to the Juvenile Law Center.

Pennsylvania's SORNA requires lifetime registration for juveniles adjudicated delinquent of the offenses of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault, according to Riya Saha Shah, staff attorney with the Juvenile Law Center. It also requires lifetime registrations for juveniles who attempted or conspired to commit those offenses, she said.

Shah said SORNA is "extraordinarily punitive," especially for youths. She noted that juvenile sex offenders have significantly lower recidivism rates than their adult counterparts.

"Some are victims themselves and are acting out," she said, adding the highest recidivism rate she's aware of for juvenile sex offenders is 7 percent.

'Sweeping implications': Chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker said Uhler's ruling will have sweeping implications, despite the fact that it has no authority over what any other common pleas judges do in either York County or around the state.

"Other judges can look to it as ... persuasive legal authority," Barker said. "And it will be cited as precedent (by defense attorneys) in every other county."

The Juvenile Law Center has similar post-sentence motions pending in Lancaster and Monroe counties.

Barker said attorneys in the York County District Attorney's Office are reviewing the ruling to determine whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. They have 30 days to do it, but plan to decide next week, he said.

An appeal should prompt an automatic stay of Uhler's ruling, the prosecutor said.

Separation of powers: It's infrequent that Pennsylvania's common pleas judges rule a law unconstitutional, Barker said, because separation of powers is "the first building block of our Constitution."

"Striking down a law as being unconstitutional is the most severe form of checks and balances that can be undertaken by the bench, because it goes to the very heart of what it means to have separation of powers," he said. "It is the equivalent of our office saying we don't like a law ... so therefore we aren't going to enforce it."

Barker said his office believes the SORNA provision is constitutional for juveniles.

Local attorneys Korey Leslie, Kurt Blake and Traci McPate each represented one of the seven juveniles, and the York County Public Defenders Office represented the other four, according to Leslie.

Group's goal: After SORNA was passed in 2011, the Juvenile Law Center contacted attorneys across the state to find those representing juveniles affected by the lifetime registration requirement, then took over filing the post-sentence motions, according to Shah. The Defenders Association of Philadelphia joined in as well, Shah said.

"The goal is to get rid of the sex-offender registry for juveniles ... to make sure they don't have to suffer this lifetime consequence," Shah said.

Leslie said Uhler's ruling states SORNA conflicts with the state's mission statement regarding juvenile law.

Second chance? "Juvenile law is not meant to punish. It is a second chance - an opportunity to rehabilitate youthful offenders," Leslie said. "What SORNA does is punish them well beyond their juvenile years."

Blake praised Uhler's decision and said the juvenile system is supposed to rehabilitate youths without stigmatizing them.

"There was a really detailed approach in this case," he said. "It looked at the difference between juvenile and adult offenders, their rates of recidivism in these kinds of cases, and it also looked at the purpose of the juvenile law."

McPate said, "What's most important about the decision is it shows a continuing recognition that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults, and have to be treated differently under the law."

-- Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.