Romeo & Juliet Cases, Revisited

The primary question when it comes to prosecuting Romeo & Juliet cases, or what the courts refer to as Statutory Rape, is whether or not at least one of those participating in a sexual act is under the age of consent. The idea is that even if the act was what would generally be considered consensual, where both partners were very willing to share in the act, at least one of those participating was not of a legal age to give their consent.

This occurs most often when students in high school or even late middle school decide they are ready to share the sexual act with another, usually their girl or boyfriend, and they either don’t know or don’t care about the consequences. They may be driven by love, or may just be experiencing new sexual urges brought on by the hormonal changes that all teenagers go through. They may feel pressured in to engaging in sexual activity as a result of peer pressure. Many young people might believe that this is a necessary initiation step in coming of age. Research estimates, according to a Pew survey, that currently nearly 78% of all boys and 62% of all girls have become sexually active while in high school.

When I was back in high school there was always a group of high school girls that were known to be willing to “go all the way”. Some girls even dated numerous boys and thus initiated some boys who had never had sex with a girl before. These girls were known to have a “bad reputation”, and on occasions became pregnant outside of wedlock. The usual solution to that problem, since abortion wasn’t legally available, was to secretly send them away to a home for unwed mothers where once the child was born it was given up for adoption. Unfortunately some abortions were also sometimes preformed illegally and were often done under less then acceptable medical conditions, known as back alley abortions.

Other times when a pregnancy would occur between a girl and her boyfriend they would be forced in to what was called a “shotgun wedding”, where the boy was required to marry the pregnant girl. This was a typical response where the parents of both the boy and girl were religious and believed the choice of marriage had already been made by the couple. Most surprising of all is that history has shown that most shotgun weddings actually proved to have a lower divorce rate than weddings in general.

Now, however, sex prior to the age of consent is fully recognized as criminal. Usually it is the boy who is older, but not always, yet it is nearly always the boy who will be convicted of Statutory Rape and end up on the Sex Offender Registry. These cases, now commonly referred to as Romeo/Juliet cases, have become one of the arguing points for saying that these offenders should not be forced to endure the punishment of being placed on the registry. By now nearly half of the states have included clauses in their statutes, where if there is less than four years difference in the age of the offender and their partner they can qualify for slightly different treatment which varies from allowing their record to be expunged to “only” being placed on the registry for ten years. But what happens when the age is four years and one month or when the age of the person is within only a few months of the age of consent. Unfortunately, the laws written by legislators rarely allow for these close calls to be decided by the judge and instead demand the full measure of punishment.

One must remember, that since this offender’s “victim” is under the age of consent, often the charge will read as “Sexual Contact With A Minor”, which even twenty years later the registry page shows a current picture of a thirty-seven year old man and his charge. This leaves the impression that this person was an adult and had sexual contact with a minor.

Because a minor was involved in the crime the offender is often classified as a tier 3 offender and listed as most likely to re-offend even though there is no statistical linkage in saying that all offenses committed with minors will lead to other offenses. This tier classification makes the registry requirement a lifetime punishment, requiring re-registration every ninety days, a requirement that is similar to parole or probation, which has always been understood as an element of punishment.

Looking at age of consent in the United States adds a second layer of complication to these laws. In Hawaii and Idaho the age of consent is 14, in Colorado and Connecticut the age is 15, and in Arizona, California and Iowa it is 18. What is illegal to do in one state may be entirely legal in another state. The same thing is true of the punishment where some states may allow a four-year gap in age and only charge a misdemeanor crime, while another state might actually charge a fifteen-year-old boy for statutory rape for having sex with his seventeen-year-old girlfriend. He may be considered both the offender and the victim and end up as a tier three sex offender for life.

Age of consent has changed drastically over time as the general morals and attitudes of society changed. According to Stephen Robertson in his publication, “Age of Consent Laws“, in Children and Youth in History,

“An age of consent statute first appeared in secular law in 1275 in England as part of the rape law. The statute, Westminster 1, made it a misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” whether with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age.”

“A 1576 law making it a felony to “unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any woman child under the age of 10 years” was generally interpreted as creating more severe punishments when girls were under 10 years old while retaining the lesser punishment for acts with 10- and 11-year-old girls. Jurist Sir Matthew Hale argued that the age of consent applied to 10- and 11-year-old girls, but most of England’s North American colonies adopted the younger age. A small group of Italian and German states that introduced an age of consent in the 16th century also employed 12 years.”

A common approach now being used by states that do not want to have to make exceptions for Romeo & Juliet cases in their sex offender statutes is to raise their state age of consent.
The Federal government uses a standard of age 18 as the age of consent when prosecuting sex offender cases. This is primarily used to prosecute individuals for possession and/or distribution of child pornography. Any photo they find on a person’s computer where they believe the person is less than fully clothed and might be under that age of 18 can be prosecuted. These laws have led to federal cases across our nation of kids still in high school being convicted for sending sexually explicit photos of their partners from one cell phone to another. Federal cases also include anyone caught crossing a state line to meet someone they believe is under the age of 18. Even if the state they entered uses a lower age of consent, they can still be arrested and prosecuted by the Federal governments laws.

So my question is, if a state is attempting to raise their age of consent or when our federal government uses age 18 as the age of consent, are they attempting to punish young people for being sexual or having sex prior to turning 18.

Now don’t think that I am in favor of children having sex, I am not. My personal faith leads me to believe that sex is God’s personal marriage gift and should be shared only within the bonds of marriage. Yet, it also seems it would make much more sense to make the age of consent consistent at 16 in all states rather than to have most states raise the age to 18. Do we really want to increase the number of people added to the sex offender registry by putting more young people, most who are children themselves, onto the Sex Offender Registry for life?

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