Court denies sex offender’s release
Man challenges Act 21 confinement
A Huntingdon County man who has been in treatment facilities as a sexually violent delinquent child for several years has challenged the constitutionality of his placement because he says under the law, he could be forced to remain in confinement for the rest of his life.
Because of that, he claims that Pennsylvania State Act 21 that authorizes treatment for individuals suffering from a mental health abnormality or personality disorder, is unconstitutional.
The man, who is now in his 20s, was initially placed in a treatment facility at age 14 after the Huntingdon County Juvenile Court found that he had committed involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child and provided false reports of the incident to law enforcement.
While in treatment, he committed additional sexual offenses, and when he turned 20 years old, he was declared a sexually violent delinquent child and was placed in the Sexual Responsibility Treatment Program at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County.
His placement requires an annual hearing by the court, and after several recent reviews, the man, who is referred to only by his initials in court documents, appealed the court orders that keep him confined.
Each order stated that he was to remain confined for an additional year.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected his latest appeal, which he filed after a July 31, 2020, review hearing.
A member of the state’s Sexual Offender Assessment Board, and a clinical director at Torrance State Hospital both testified that the man continued to engage in inappropriate conduct, and that his recently lowered treatment level reflected his latest problems.
After the hearing, Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz of Huntingdon County authorized his placement for another year.
Defense attorney Wayne E. Bradburn Jr. of State College argued in the appeal to the Superior Court that Act 21 is unconstitutional.
Had the man been confined as the result of being convicted of a crime, he would know when he was eventually eligible for release, the defense stated.
But under Act 21, the man could be confined his entire life, which, the defense contended, is unconstitutional “in a criminal context.”
The prosecution, led by Huntingdon County Assistant District Attorney Julia B. Wilt, responded by arguing the defense “is confusing the purposes to be served by the criminal justice system — which seeks to deter and punish criminal behavior — and (the man’s) commitment under Act 21, whose purpose is to treat his mental health abnormality and personality disorder while protecting the public.”
In an opinion written by Superior Court Judge Dan Pellegrini, the Superior Court refused to address the defense argument that had the man been sentenced criminally, he would have faced a lesser time in confinement.
The Pellegrini opinion stated this was “speculative” on the part of the defense, noting that he could still be committed for treatment after completing a prison term.
“We decline to address this speculative claim,” Pellegrini stated in the opinion that was joined by judges Mary P. Murray and Maria McLaughlin.
In addressing the constitutionality issue, the opinion referred to a 2020 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that found Act 21 is not punitive, like a prison sentence.
Its primary aim, the Supreme Court opinion explained, is to protect the public by providing treatment to sexually violent individuals.
The Pellegrini opinion then stated (in view of the 2020 decision), “We decline … to impose limits on how long an individual can spend in treatment to satisfy Act 21’s purpose.”
The Superior Court, in reviewing the case, stated that man was initially adjudicated a delinquent in 2013 when he was 14 years old.
In 2018, he was declared a sexually violent delinquent child and was committed to Torrance.
That year, he appealed his commitment in which he argued Act 21 was punitive because it allowed confinement based on “clear and convincing evidence,” a lower standard than the one used in criminal cases, which is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Superior Court on July 23, 2020, upheld the county judge’s order continuing the man’s treatment based on the April 1, 2020, Supreme Court opinion.
The Supreme Court ruling indicated Act 21 protects the public from violent sexual predators, “who have never been convicted of a crime, but are subject to the statutory restrictions because they are dangerously mentally ill.”
The state’s highest court concluded that Act 21 “does not constitute criminal punishment.”
Based on that conclusion, the Superior Court panel upheld Kurtz’s most recent order of confining the man to Torrance for ongoing treatment.