SHSU Institute Studies Adolescent Sex and Laws

While statutory rape laws have been enacted to protect minors from sexual abuse by adults or peers, more teenagers are engaging in sexual activity before the legal age of consent and are facing sexual assault charges.

A recent study by the Crime Victims’ Institute at Sam Houston State University examines various state laws that have been adopted to address the growing problem and suggests ways to address the dilemmas caused by the laws that are written.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that some teenagers engage in sexual activity even before they reach the legally defined age of consent," said Dr. Glen Kercher, Director of the Crime Victims’ Institute. "Given the changing mores in this country and the increasing acceptance by teenagers of early sexual intimacies, more and more young people are finding themselves facing sexual assault charges, whether or not either partner feels victimized."

The report, entitled “Adolescent Behavior and the Law,” provides an overview of state laws involving statutory rape and offenders who are close in age to their victims. It also refers to the model penal code, which decriminalizes sexual relationship between teenagers who are close in age when the acts are consensual and the person is no more than four years older than the minor.

While few would argue that statutory rape laws should be eliminated, cases involving consensual, close-in-age relationships continue to be processed through the courts and may result in youth being labeled as sex offenders. Decriminalizing these cases could result in saving time and expenses in criminal court, and offenses could be tied to brief educational programs and provide parents with the option of a restraining order to control their child’s behavior.

In lieu of decriminalization, judges and prosecutors should be encouraged to use education classes instead of punishment in deciding these consensual, close-in-age relationships. In addition, juveniles who meet carefully crafted criteria, even when these cases are prosecuted, should be removed from the sex offender registry because of the wide-ranging restrictions and stigma imposed.

"Requiring sex offenders to register and to have their information posted on the publicly available website is designed to protect the public," said Dr. Kercher. "The offenders who register have been determined by law to be a danger to the public regardless of their risk of re-offending. Such a requirement, particularly with offenders in close-in-age cases, may not be a danger to public safety."

The age of consent is set by each state and ranges from 16 to 18 years old. It is believed that youth below the age of consent are less likely to understand and consider the potential consequences of sexual activities, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies.

Most states include age gap provisions in their existing laws to differentiate cases of young children from teenagers in relationship with those close in age. Some states, like Texas, have Romeo and Juliet clauses, which provide defendants with an affirmative defense if they meet certain criteria, such as an age gap, age of victim, lack of incest or potential bigamy, or no previous registration as a sex offender.

The Crime Victims Institute was created by the Texas Legislature in 1995 to study the impact of crime on victims, their relatives and on society as a whole. CVI evaluates the effectiveness of criminal justice policy and juvenile justice policy in preventing the victimization of society by criminal acts and helps develop policies to assist the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system in preventing the criminal victimization of society.

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