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Thousands of Pennsylvania sex offenders no longer have to register. Should lawmakers put them back on a list for life?

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee, a key gatekeeper, unanimously advanced legislation to replace an invalidated law that would require offenders to remain on a registry for decades or for life.

Aaron Marcus of Defender Association of Philadelphia testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the state capitol Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, regarding a bill to replace Pennsylvania’s sex-offender registration law.
Aaron Marcus of Defender Association of Philadelphia testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the state capitol Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, regarding a bill to replace Pennsylvania’s sex-offender registration law.Read moreSamantha Melamed

HARRISBURG — About 150 people in Philadelphia are in state prison and 150 more are on probation or parole for neglecting to fill out address-change notifications or missing a required reporting date — all failures to comply with a sex-offender-registration law the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional last July.

Now, the fates of those people — along with as many as 17,000 others statewide who were required, under that law, to remain on a registry for decades or life — hinge in large part on the state legislature.

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee, a key gatekeeper, unanimously advanced legislation already passed by the House to replace the invalidated law.

Meanwhile, a panel of Common Pleas Court judges is deliberating whether to vacate the failure-to-comply convictions for the approximately 300 Philadelphians still under supervision.

"We've cast a very wide net and are spending resources in punishing people who do not pose a threat to society — and we're diluting our ability to monitor the dangerous ones," Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) said at the outset of the Judiciary Committee meeting. "We need to ask ourselves who are we mad at and who we should be afraid of."

But the prevailing view was that maintaining registration is a public-safety imperative. Proponents said that without legislative action, state police could lose track of thousands of sex offenders.

Jerry "Sandusky would not have to register if we do not enact this legislation," Sean McCormack, Dauphin County's chief deputy district attorney, told the committee Monday.

Critics say the reporting requirements are oppressive, expensive to enforce, and ineffective in reducing recidivism.

"The evidence is conclusive. Large-scale, offense-based registries like the ones Pennsylvania has employed over the past two decades not only fail to reduce sexual violence but in fact do just the opposite," said Aaron Marcus, an assistant defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

That's likely because lifetime registration can prove a barrier to keeping housing and employment — exacerbating factors linked to reoffending.

He argued that registries ensnare even low-risk offenders and pointed to research that found that after 10 or 15 years without committing an offense, a sex offender's likelihood of reoffending diminishes to between 1 percent and 3 percent.

Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr., vice chairman of the committee, suggested that the height of the #MeToo movement was no time to roll back accountability: "I think you're misreading the temperature of the public. The public is demanding more accountability of people accused of sexual misconduct."

That's been the trend since Pennsylvania passed its first version of Megan's Law, which requires information be made available to the public regarding registered sex offenders, in 1995. Over the years, the legislature updated the law to make it more restrictive — applying it to more offenses and requiring longer registration periods.

The most recent version, written to comply with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), was passed Dec. 20, 2012; it included five times as many offenses as were first listed in Megan's Law, including nonsexual crimes such as interfering with the custody of a child.

"I was a sponsor of the Pennsylvania Megan's Law … and I'd like to note that the original intent in all of this was to apply it to the sexually violent offenders," said Greenleaf, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Under Pennsylvania SORNA, just one in 10 registrants was deemed a sexually violent predator.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upended the system last July when it decided the case of Jose Muniz, a Cumberland County man who was convicted of indecent assault for touching the breasts of his girlfriend's 12-year-old daughter, and whose registration requirement was upgraded under the new law from 10 years to life. The court found applying the law retroactively was unconstitutional. Though the law's purported goal is public safety, the court declared it was in fact a new punishment being applied to an offense after the fact.

Since then, lawyers and judges around the state have been scrambling to figure out the next steps.

In Philadelphia, the Defender Association filed post-conviction petitions on behalf of more than 300 individuals, seeking to remove them from the registry and vacate their failure-to-comply convictions. A panel of judges in December heard arguments on legal issues but has not issued a decision.

Meanwhile, last week a Common Pleas Court judge, Shanese Johnson, signed off on agreements between the district attorney and 47 individuals to remove them from the registry. Under SORNA, they would have been on for decades, or even for life.

Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo insisted the proposed law will not hit the same legal hurdles as Pennsylvania SORNA. "The registration obligations are less onerous than the duty to file state income tax returns," he said.

According to Pennsylvania State Police acting Deputy Commissioner Maj. Scott Price, there are 17,544 people whom he expects to be relieved of registration requirements as a result of the Muniz decision; about 9,000 to 12,000 of those would be back on the registry under the draft legislation.

Jennifer Storm, the state victim advocate, said that registration notifications are crucial to victims' piece of mind: "The overwhelming majority of people on this registry should be on there. We owe it to the crime victims. We owe them some sense of safety."