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PA Supreme Court Strikes Down Juvenile Sex Offender Registration



Juveniles can say so long to SORNA.

In an excellently argued and thoughtfully decided opinion[1], the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently struck down mandated registration of “juvenile offenders” under Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). In doing so, the Court recognized the inherent differences between juveniles and adults AND the judicial systems that decide their cases.[2]

The Court found SORNA’s “irrebutable presumption” that juvenile offenders were both inherently dangerous and likely to re-offend (one which gave the individual juvenile offender no recourse whatsoever to challenge their designation and the resulting registration requirement of anywhere from 15 years to their lifetime) was, in fact, not supported by research. Juvenile sex offenders have alleged recidivist rates of anywhere from less than 2% to 7%, depending on the study cited. Adult sex offenders are alleged to reoffend at much higher rates (one study cited in the opinion calculated that rate at 13%). This unsupported, if not outright contradicted, irrebutable presumption violated the juveniles’ due process rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution (our Constitution, as opposed to the Federal Constitution, recognizes one’s fundamental right to their “reputation”).

The Court concluded by noting that there are alternative measures available which afford due process to the juvenile, as opposed to blanket designations with no opportunity for the juvenile to contest. Those alternatives are individualized assessments of the juvenile offender’s propensity for dangerousness and/or to re-offend by the State Sex Offenders Assessment Board (“SOAB”), and the juvenile’s ability to contest this designation in a hearing before a judge.

Pennsylvania’s Juvenile SORNA statute, borne under threat of penalty by way of the loss of a lot of annual federal grant money (as in over $1.5 million), was an example of reactionary legislation with little-to-no supporting data.[3] Kudos to the lawyers who argued this case and to the Supreme Court for invalidating it. Blanket legislative designations (and punishments), in this attorney’s opinion, are lazy, cynical and ultimately unfair. Cases (adult and juvenile) should be addressed individually and courts should be afforded discretion to resolve them taking into account the specific facts of the case and the characteristics of the defendant.


[1] In the Interest of J.B., 2014 WL 7369785 (Pa.). A 6-1 decision with Justice Stevens’ (not so thoughtful) lone dissent.

[2] “Pennsylvania utilizes courts which are specifically trained to address the distinct issues involving youth, and are guided by concepts of balanced and restorative justice.” 2014 WL 7369785 p. 11 (Pa.).

[3] And don’t fret, we can now apparently still get all of our federal money, as there is an “out” allowing the US Attorney General to not penalize a state which is prevented from adopting SORNA provisions in violation of its constitution, as determined by a ruling of the state’s highest court.    

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