Pennsylvania’s “Sex Offender” Registry is headed for what some are calling a life-or-death battle in the PA Supreme Court.
The registry, in existence for nearly a quarter of a century, enacted as part of Megan’s Law, a law giving the public a false sense of security by allowing them access to know who and where “sex offenders” lived in their communities, is about to be challenged. A challenge that we can only hope will either begin putting the registry to death or at the very least, let it be picked apart so it is unrecognizable and reworked into something that makes sense.
And perhaps, if things go our way in Pennsylvania, maybe, like dominos, registries across the country that have done nothing but ruin the lives and reputations of those who have already served sentences, will finally begin to fall.
There are 5 separate cases before the PA Supreme Court. If ever words and phrases were important, the fact that the attorneys bringing these cases before the court are using terms such as “outdated, discriminatory, unnecessarily cruel and depriving thousands of their fundamental rights”, should bring us a little Christmas cheer, they finally get it, yes, this is what we’ve been up against.
Prosecutors are quick to suggest that doing away with Megan’s Law would allow sexually violent predators to evade detection and put the public’s safety at risk if the registry were to be dismantled. Despite all the evidence showing that not all registrants are sexually violent predators nor do all registrants put the public’s safety at risk, this is the card prosecutors continually play.
The defense attorneys in these cases, joined by a growing number of experts involved in the criminal justice movement, are acting quickly to squash the prosecutors claims as “false hysteria”. Their arguments expose the constitutional problems with Megan’s Law and the need for the state to “rethink” the way in which it manages not only those convicted of sexual violence, but those who are thrown into the “sexual offender” category by default.
To date, PA’s Megan’s Law Registry has doubled from 10,000 to 20,000, this is due in part because of changes to SORNA which took effect in 2012 and greatly expanded the list of offenses subject to registration and notification, including some that are not even sexual in nature. Can there be anything more ridiculous than a “sex offender registry” that includes offenses un-related to sex?
Aaron Marcus, an assistant defender attorney and one of those included in challenging the law made this telling comment, “after decades of trials, mountains of empirical evidence and close to one million people across the country being denied their rights to liberty and their reputation, there is no hard evidence that the public is any safer or that assaults have been prevented.” One million people being denied their rights! Will this court listen, and if they do, will other state courts follow suit?
Of the 5 cases before the court the one most prominent has to do with current requirements for those classified as sexually violent predators and at highest risk to re-offend. Those with this classification are subject to lifetime registration, counseling and community notification. The case deals with whether or not these restrictions constitute unlawful punishment and how well the little- known process of assessing these “sexual offenders” works. Since 2000, PA’s board of psychiatrists, psychologists and criminal justice professionals have assessed 20,260 offenders and classified 6,027 as sexually violent predators. The courts have not always agreed with the findings.
Another case deals with the registration system. PA has two different sets of rules depending on when a crime was committed, prior to Dec. 20, 2012 when the current law went into effect in PA and another for crimes committed after that date.
In one case, a man with no prior record who was convicted in 2017 for aggravated indecent assault and subject to lifetime registration argues the point that the law violates PA’s State Constitutional fundamental right to reputation. Lifetime registration “presumes” that people convicted of certain sexual offenses can’t change and are prone to re-offend. (Oddly enough TN’s Sex Offender Treatment Board presumes that ALL registrants, not just those on lifetime registration, “can’t change and will re-offend”, it’s actually part of their mission statement.)
Lawyers led by Aaron Marcus were able to cite experts and studies showing the public’s false perception that those convicted of sex offenses will re-offend and that they remain a continued risk. While few may re-offend, all registrants are lumped into the same “sex offender” category. All suffer irreparable harm from the “sex offender” label. All are on state “sex offender” websites that are capable of destroying reputations because of their public accessibility.
Two of the other cases take aim at the unconstitutionality of the current law and a fifth case centers on how juvenile sex offenses are handled.
The cases before the PA Supreme Court are fact based, so what makes this different from other cases? While facts are presented, the realities of the damage done to registrants is also being presented. Registrants with no prior records reputations continue to be damaged by the registry long after their sentences have been served. According to Aaron Marcus “it’s difficult to over-state the impact that sex offender registration has on a person’s life.” The impact, that’s what the courts need to hear and understand this time around. They need to know that the registry ruins the lives of those on it.
The justices are expected to rule separately on the challenges but together, whatever their rulings, it looks like PA’s Megan’s Law will in some way be changed.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that there are people like Rep. Rob Kauffman/R. from Franklin County who chairs the PA House Judiciary Committee and who will be on one of the first legislative panels to address the high court’s decision. While acknowledging that “Megan’s Law is not perfect” Mr. Kauffman still goes on to say, even after all the empirical evidence to the contrary that “it’s a very important component of public safety in the Commonwealth”.
To Mr. Kauffman I say, Put on Your LISTENING EARS! There is no evidence that this law ever made the public safer.
What part of that didn’t you hear?