PHILADELPHIA — By the time he was arrested for sexually assaulting two siblings, 15-year-old J.B. had been molested by his alcoholic father and subjected to 25 moves among his birth, foster and adoptive families. He had also suffered from untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.
Though tried in juvenile court, with its focus on privacy and rehabilitation, he was later required by a 2012 Pennsylvania law to register as a sex offender — branded a long-term danger to society, with no way off the list for at least 25 years.
Juvenile law advocates campaigning against such automatic registries argue that they undermine the rehabilitative purpose of juvenile law and wrongly force judges to treat offenders the same, no matter their circumstances. In Pennsylvania, local judges increasingly agree with them.
Late last year, a central Pennsylvania judge weighing the cases of J.B., as he is known in court documents, and six others found the registration law violated the state constitution. Now the issue is headed to the state high court.
“As is all too common with juvenile sex offenders, their lives too have been marred by tragedies, traumas, addictions, abuse and personal victimization,” wrote Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler in York County. “Fortunately, as is also common with juvenile offenders, they have demonstrated a great capacity and willingness to rehabilitate and make better lives for themselves.”
Judges in two other counties have since ruled similarly, in cases that partially focused on adding offenders to the list after being sentenced.
In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday, juvenile advocates will argue that the registration requirement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and creates roadblocks for young people trying to rebuild their lives.
Across the country, a growing number of juvenile judges, advocates and policymakers are questioning the effect of the registration mandate Congress passed under the 2006 Adam Walsh Act, named after the Florida boy abducted and killed in 1981. States that don’t comply risk losing millions in federal law enforcement grants.