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Pennsylvania Child Sex Abuse Laws in Question After SORNA Ruling

shadow of a little girl walking and holdings hands with an adult woman against a yellow background

On October 21, 1995, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge signed Act 24 of 1995 into law. This law, commonly known as Pennsylvania’s “Megan’s Law” went into effect on April 21, 1996. Since it was enacted, state legislatures made multiple amendments to the law. Most of these amendments were in favor of protecting the public from becoming child sex abuse victims. However, the latest decision favored sex offenders and put Pennsylvania child sex abuse laws in Limbo.

Almost 10 years after Megan’s Law was signed, Governor Ed Rendell signed Senate Bill 92 on November 24, 2004. This bill made information on all sex offenders registered in Pennsylvania available to the public, among other changes. Another major change came on December 20, 2011 when Governor Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill No. 1183. This bill, also known as the “Adam Walsh Bill”, brought Pennsylvania into compliance with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which joined Pennsylvania’s child sex abuse prevention efforts with the national sex offender registry. This law also expanded the list of offenses that required an offender to join the registry, and expanded the registration requirements to juvenile offenders who were guilty of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, solicitation attempts or conspiracy.

Megan’s Law and the Adam Walsh Bill were named after two child murder victims with the aim to prevent other child from become victims. Megan Kanka was a 7-year-old from West Windsor Township, New Jersey, according to History.com.  She was assaulted and murdered by a neighbor who had to prior sexual assault convictions. Six-year-old Adam Walsh was the son John Walsh, now host of America’s Most Wanted. Adam disappeared from a Sears department store in 1981 while shopping with his mother. Two weeks later, his head was discovered by fisherman in a canal 120 miles away from his home, NBC news reported. No arrests were made, but Time reported that the Florida confirmed that a convicted serial killer who died in prison in 1996 was responsible for Adam’s murder.

Pennsylvania replaced Megan’s Law on December 20, 2012 with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). According to Post-Gazette, this act increased the length of time an offender was required to remain on the sex offender registry from 10 years to 15 for a tier 1 offense; 25 for a tier 2 offense; and lifetime registration for a tier 3 offense. SORNA also added additional offenses which involved no sexual contact, such as unlawful, false imprisonment and interference with child custody.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is now questioning the constitutionality of the state’s sex offender registration list. Morning Call reported about a recent ruling that found that SORNA had become a form of punishment for offenders rather than an informational tool to assist the public. Jose Muniz was found guilty of indecent assault in 2007 when the 10-year requirement was in effect. However, he failed to report and wasn’t apprehended until 2014, after SORNA was signed. Many argued that Muniz should be required to stay on the registry for the rest of his life but because he was charged in 2007, he was only required to register for 10 years. The Post-Gazette reported that the Supreme Court ruled that PA’s sex offender registration system is punitive and cannot be applied to defendants retroactively.

Defense attorneys are arguing that sex offenders whose crimes predates SORNA should no longer have to register. They believe that because SORNA replaced Megan’s law, that the old  Pennsylvania child sex abuse law cannot be reinstated without legislature. If SORNA is repealed and Megan’s Law is not reinstated, as many as 22,000 names could be removed from the Pennsylvania sex offender registry.

A January 19, 2018 Altoona Mirror article included the below statement from Blair County, PA District Attorneys Richard Consiglio and  Assistant District Attorney Derek Elensky, who prosecutes child abuse cases :

“The recent decisions by the courts have taken away our ability to file charges against a significant number of convicted sexual offenders who are no longer complying with their registration requirements. This in turn has limited our ability to protect the community at large, and victims of sexual crimes, from these individuals.”

Elensky said these laws provide readily accessible information to the victims and their families to avoid placing victims at future risk.

For the past 23 years, Megan’s Law has helped protect child sex abuse victims and help other families take the proper precautions to prevent their children from becoming victims. Megan Kanka’s parents and Adam Walsh’s parents, along with countless parents across the country who experienced tragedy have championed their cause so that other families will not suffer the grief that they suffered.  Pennsylvania children should not lose the protection that these pioneers fought so hard to get.

The Altoona Mirror suggests that it could be months before the fate of Pennsylvania child sex abuse laws is decided.

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