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SPLC sues Alabama officials for overly severe sex-offender law that punishes children for life

Herbert Stevens met Candi Stevens when their mutual friends introduced them at a local skating rink. He was 14 and she was 12. 

Over time, the two became a young couple, going out on movie dates, hanging out with friends at each other’s houses, and attending school dances together.

Eventually, the high school sweethearts got married, bought a house, and had three children. They’ve been married now for 20 years.

But this otherwise happy love story has a sad twist: When Herbert was 17 and Candi was 15, her mother – on the advice of her stepfather, who did not approve of the budding relationship – called police and had Herbert arrested for statutory rape.

Under an extremely restrictive Alabama state law that does not recognize the teen romance, Herbert was tried and convicted – as an adult – of second-degree rape because Candi was also a minor.

The arrest led Herbert down a spiral of legal consequences that landed him in prison for over 15 years and forced him to register as a sex offender. His sex offender status prevents him from finding steady employment, caused him to miss his son’s graduation from basic military training, prevents him from picking up his children from school, and set up a series of other hurdles that make it harder for him and his wife to raise their family. For example, they had to move 45 minutes away from their jobs and other opportunities because of restrictions on how close Herbert can be to places where children are present.

“They charged me like I was a rapist or something. I really didn’t do that,” Herbert said. “It’s hard to find jobs. It’s kind of crazy. It’s like a rope holding me back my whole life.”

It’s been especially hard for their children, who are now 19, 15 and 12, according to Candi Stevens.

“They still don’t understand why he can’t come to the school,” she said.

Herbert Stevens is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit the SPLC and Juvenile Law Center filed today against Alabama state officials for implementing the Alabama Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Act (SORNA). The law, which went into effect in July 2011, requires people who have been convicted of sex crimes as adults to register as sex offenders for their entire lives, even if they were children when the offenses were committed. It also gives the plaintiffs virtually no chance of ever being removed from the registry, which blocks them from getting jobs, deprives them of the ability to pick up their kids from school, and heavily restricts where they can live.

The law does not take into account the age of the child at the time of the offense, how youth-based characteristics affect children’s decision-making, or the child’s potential for rehabilitation, according to the lawsuit, Pennington v. Taylor.

The suit names Hal Taylor, secretary of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency; John Q. Hamm, director of the state Bureau of Investigation; Charles Ward, director of the state Department of Safety; and Steve Marshall, attorney general of Alabama, as defendants.

By law, children are unable to vote, drive, buy alcohol or purchase cigarettes because they are not psychologically developed enough to understand the consequences of their decisions. But SORNA does not take this into account, doling out the same punishment to children as it does to adults. 

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate Alabama’s SORNA law, especially as it applies to children tried as adults, because the law violates constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and against punishments enacted and enforced long after the crime was committed. Alabama’s SORNA law also violates the U.S Constitution’s requirement for due process and equal protection under the law. Further, the lawsuit states that SORNA violates the Alabama Constitution by harming the plaintiffs’ rights to reputation because the law unfairly characterizes them as lifelong sex offenders.

“Children develop into their best selves when provided guidance, rehabilitation, and support,” said Jonathan Barry-Blocker, staff attorney for the SPLC. “Neither they, nor our communities, are best served by the excessive, lifelong punishments designed for mature adults. Therefore, we are challenging this unfair practice of subjecting children tried as adults to Alabama’s oppressive registration requirements.”

Even though the plaintiffs committed their offenses as children, they are subject to the same employment, residence and family restrictions as adult offenders. The adult restrictions for adolescent behavior are devastating. They limit the plaintiffs’ potential for rehabilitation and offer virtually no second chances.

Regardless of the age of the child at the time of the offense or plaintiffs’ experiences after incarceration – including loss of steady employment, social and familial relationships – they must suffer under SORNA’s restrictions until they die, even if they do not commit any further offenses.

“The fact that children are categorically less culpable than adults and less deserving of the harshest punishments our criminal justice system imposes highlights the unfairness of automatic, public, lifetime registration and underscores the devastating cost of that requirement when the law is used to impose an adult consequence against a child,” the lawsuit states.

SORNA requires children convicted as adults under the law to comply with extensive registration and notification requirements. They must appear in person to local law enforcement in each county there they live every three months and pay a registration fee of $10 each time. At each visit, they must provide personal information such as date of birth, Social Security information, address, employer’s address, telephone numbers, email addresses, fingerprints, palm prints, and even DNA. Their names, addresses, children’s school addresses, employment addresses, license plates, photographs, physical descriptions and criminal histories are all included on the sex offender website for anyone to see. This denies them the right to be reformed, the lawsuit states.

“This litigation aims to end the profoundly harmful and unnecessary practice of registering youth as sex offenders,” said Riya Saha Shah, managing director for Juvenile Law Center. “Alabama’s sex offender registration law offers youth no exit from the registry, which will substantially impede their ability to transition successfully to adulthood and lead productive and fulfilling lives. Lifetime registration, like that imposed on our clients, disrupts an individual’s ability to work, build relationships, and be present in their children’s lives outside the home. We are happy to be partnering with the SPLC to challenge this punitive practice.”

Plaintiff Randy Pennington was charged with rape in 1984 because he was 16 and had consensual sex with a married girl who was also 16. Her husband reported him to law enforcement for rape. An appointed attorney urged Pennington to plead guilty to sex abuse in the first degree. He received a three-year sentence and served one year in the county jail, plus two years on probation. While incarcerated, he earned his GED and an auto mechanic license.

In 2006, Pennington and his wife purchased a home in Columbiana, a town in Shelby County, Alabama. One day, he received a call from the sheriff’s office informing him that there was a warrant for his arrest for failure to register under SORNA. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to the SORNA violation and received three years of probation. 

His home, however, did not meet the SORNA residence requirements, and the court required him to move within 10 days. Forced to move out of his family’s home, he stayed in his friend’s camper at a campground in Talladega County, Alabama, while his family remained in the home.

To make matters worse, he was continuously harassed by people living nearby who had read his profile on the sex offender registry. It incorrectly listed him as a 52-year-old man who had sex with a 16-year-old girl – failing to note that he was 16, too, at the time of the incident.

“As a teenager, I pled guilty to a three-year charge, and 30 years later I’m being punished with a life sentence,” he said. “I wasn’t a real good kid at the time, but I was a kid. It turned my whole life upside down. I’m just trying to make a better life for myself and my family.”

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