When the new provisions of Pennsylvania's Act 111 of last year take effect on Dec. 20, sex offenders will face a harsher criminal justice system with powers far beyond what was previously available.
However, whether the new guidelines are a powerful tool in protecting the public from sexual predators or they go too far at the expense of basic rights is a matter of opinion.
"I believe these laws go far beyond anything required in the AWA (the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006) and will accomplish nothing by way of public safety," Executive Director of Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) Brenda Jones said. "They completely ignore all current research on sexual offenders, public registries and collateral consequences resulting from registries."
Warren County District Attorney Ross McKeirnan has a different take.
"The purpose of the registration is to hold these offenders accountable and to protect the public interest by letting communities know where they are," McKeirnan said.
The Adam Walsh Act included a provision requiring states to meet new federal guidelines for sentencing, registration of sexual offenders and what constitutes a sexual offense requiring registration. The Pennsylvania law is an attempt to meet these guidelines.
Jones cited concerns with both the content of the legislation and the cost of implementing the new system.
"The new registration laws PA is about to implement are harsher and will have significant as yet undetermined financial impact on the state's budget," Jones argued. "The simple facts are: more people will be registered, they will register for longer periods and more frequently and more information is required, which will make the process more labor intensive."
Jones also argued against the content of the law, specifically ex post facto provisions. Ex post facto laws, literally latin for "from after the action" laws, was expressly forbidden under Article I of the United States constitution in part to prevent retroactive imposition of harsher penalties than were in effect at the time of a conviction or persecution for acts that were legal at the time they were committed.
However, United States courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled some laws with retroactive provisions to be constitutional when the provisions in question do not constitute additional punitive measures.
The federal government successfully argued that the provisions of the Adam Walsh Act do not constitute additional punishment in requiring regular registration of offenders and posting registrant information publicly.
An attempt to implement laws similar to those included in Act 111 in Ohio was overturned by the state's supreme court due to it's retroactive provisions in 2011.
"Studies show there's a high rate of re-offense," McKeirnan noted. "These offenders are already convicted and to be under Megan's Law (the informal name for laws requiring sexual registration) you have already been diagnosed as having a mental abnormality. Sexually violent predators are proven to have a high-rate of re-offending."
"RSOL is disappointed that Pennsylvania lawmakers have learned nothing from their neighbor Ohio," Jones said. "That state has spent millions of dollars on implementation and the ensuing flood of litigation, only to have their original SB 10 (Ohio Senate Bill 10) declared unconstitutional on retroactivity and separation of powers violations. The new law will retroactively increase everyone's registration period and add harsher requirements which are clearly punitive in nature. We believe the new law is unconstitutional and are confident that it will be challenged."
The United States Supreme Court upheld the provisions of the Adam Walsh Act federally.
Jones also expressed concern with provisions of the law which require lifetime registration of juveniles for the most serious sexual offenses. A first in Pennsylvania. Some juveniles could be eligible for release from registration requirements after 25 years.
"It is tragic that PA will register juveniles as young as 14 years-of-age, potentially for the rest of their lives," Jones said. "This is despite the fact that there is so much information showing how amenable juveniles can be to treatment and rehabilitation. Although there is a potential removal avenue for the juvenile after 25 years, the removal process unfairly places the burden of proof on the registration and sets the bar so high that few will be able to get removed."
McKeirnan was concerned about the damage sexual offenses leave in their wake.
"These are twisted individuals. Generally, they are pedophiles," McKeirnan said. "In my two terms as district attorney, we've prosecuted dozens of these cases and I'm aware of the emotional trauma on victims they inflict."