On November 4, a judge in York County ruled that lifetime registration for juvenile sex offenders under SORNA is unconstitutional. In his 41-page opinion, Senior Judge John C. Uhler drew on the principles that the Supreme Court set out last year in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. The Court in Miller found that these mandatory sentences were cruel and unusual because such a “one size fits all” approach to sentencing is not appropriate for juveniles.
Under SORNA, juveniles who are guilty of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, or aggravated indecent assault are required to register with state police for life. Judge Uhler found that this mandatory lifelong registration sentence is similar to the mandatory life without parole sentence in Miller, and held that the sentence is unconstitutional for the same reasons. Judge Uhler opined that such a sentence completely contradicts the purpose of juvenile courts, which is “to provide guidance and rehabilitation for the child and protection for society, not to affix criminal responsibility, guilt and punishment.” Drawing from the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, Judge Uhler also said that “children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes … [because of their] diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” Finally, Judge Uhler relied on the plethora of research that shows recidivism among juvenile sex offenders is very low.
It is important to remember that Judge Uhler’s ruling is not binding precedent outside of that county and York County District Attorney Tom Kearney says he will appeal the decision. If the Superior Court affirms in a published opinion then the decision will become binding precedent across the state unless and until it is reversed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.