The Pennsylvania Legislature is weighing its options in light of a recent state Supreme Court decision that could reduce the size of the state’s sex offender registry.
In July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the current iteration of the state’s sex offender registry was a form of punishment and could not be imposed retroactively.
The decision stemmed from a case in Cumberland County where a defendant, Jose Muniz, was convicted of indecent assault of a person less than 13 years old in 2007, but was not sentenced until 2014 because he fled.
In 2011, the Legislature changed the state’s sex offender registration law to comply with federal law.
The change meant Muniz would have to be on the registry for life, rather than register for 10 years under the version of the law that was in effect at the time of his conviction.
Roughly 2,000 people who had previously not been required to register were added to the state database and many others saw the length of their registration period increase like Muniz.
“We need a statutory fix in order to ensure we have a robust and constitutional sex offender registry in Pennsylvania,” Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said during a Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee hearing on sex offender registration.
Freed said without a change in legislation it was possible that people will be removed from the registry or will not be able to be prosecuted for failing to comply with registration requirements.
Freed said he plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court review the Muniz decision and has been granted an order temporarily halting the decision while that paperwork is being put together.
Much of the discussion Tuesday revolved around reinstating a previous version of the state’s sex offender registration law, with the belief that it would be able to survive judicial scrutiny.
However, Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County, suggested circumventing the state registry by creating a website of people charged with sexual offenses utilizing public information such as their charging records and mug shots.
Roughly 98 percent of all charged sex crimes in Cumberland County between 2013 and 2016 involved defendants not on the registry, according to analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
“To be sure, looking at sex offender registries can never be the exclusive way in which an individual tries to keep him or herself or his or her children safe from sexual predators,” Freed said. “If used as a tool and not the exclusive tool, sex offender registries do provide important information for protecting both children and adults from sexual predators.”
Most sex offender registry policies are passed with a notion that people convicted of sexual offenses are highly likely to go on to commit new sexual offenses.
When the Legislature passed its update in 2011 it added language that “sexual offenders pose a high risk of committing additional sexual offences, and protection from this type of offender is a paramount government interest.”
During his testimony Tuesday, Freed cited a study saying that “four out of every 10 (convicted sex offenders) returned to prison within three years.”
While the Bureau of Justice Statistics study Freed cited showed roughly 40 percent of nearly 10,000 people released in 1994 for committing a sexual offense were arrested again, only about 5 percent were arrested for a new sexual offense and only 3.5 percent were re-convicted.
The study, which was conducted prior to the widespread adoption and implementation of state sex offender registries, also found sex offenders had an overall rearrest rate more than 20 percentage points lower than nonsex offenders.
A follow up study by the BJS released in 2016 found similar rates of sexual recidivism.
Freed also cited a study that found 39 percent of people convicted of rape and 52 percent of people convicted of child molestation are rearrested for a sexual offenses.
That study, published in 1997 by Robert Prentky, did find a higher rate of sexual recidivism but is often misapplied to all sex offenders.
Prentky’s study looked at the long-term recidivism rate of roughly 250 sexual offenders released from a Massachusetts civil commitment program, of which Prentky was the director, whose victims were either nonfamily members in cases of child molestation or strangers in cases of rapes.
In more than 90 percent of child sexual assault and 70 percent of adult rapes reported to police, the victim knew the perpetrator, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an organization dedicated to preventing sexual violence.
Civil commitment is typically a process in which people who have completed their sentence, but are deemed to be an extreme danger to society, are continued to be held in custody until they are no longer a threat.
This means Prentky’s study is likely applicable only to a subsection of sexual offenders who are most likely to commit a new crime and not all sexual offenders as a group.