Some states reconsider youth sex laws

By: - December 27, 2007 12:00 am

This story on a hot topic facing states next year is excerpted from ‘s upcoming annual report on state trends and policy, “State of the States 2008.”  

Lawmakers across the country continue to mete out harsh punishments to sex offenders – from satellite tracking to the death penalty – but a handful of states have eased up on penalties in cases of youths prosecuted for consensual sex.

Connecticut , Florida , Indiana and Texas enacted laws in 2007 that make a distinction between sexual predators and adolescents who do not pose a risk, such as those caught in so-called “Romeo and Juliet” relationships, in which one partner is of consenting age and the other is not.

The case in Georgia of former high school football star and homecoming king Genarlow Wilson served as a rallying symbol for supporters of more nuanced state laws, and could have lasting repercussions in statehouses nationwide, criminal justice experts said.

Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation in 2005 for receiving consensual oral sex from a 15-year-old girl in 2003 when he was 17. State law at the time required Wilson to serve 10 years behind bars without the possibility of probation or parole.

The sentence sparked national outrage and the Georgia Supreme Court freed Wilson in October after he had spent more than two years in prison, finding that his sentence was “grossly disproportionate to his crime.” Wilson ‘s case was frequently cited by lawmakers in states that have taken steps to prevent low-risk adolescents from facing the same penalties as serious offenders.

Connecticut ‘s new law widens the permissible age gap between consenting sexual partners from two years to three, in an attempt to trim the number of “Romeo and Juliet” cases prosecuted. Florida ‘s updated law allows those involved in consensual sexual encounters – with no more than four years between them – to petition to have their names removed from state and national sex-offender registries.

Indiana decriminalized consensual sex between adolescents if they are found by a court to be in a “dating relationship” and have an age difference of four years or less. Texas overhauled a risk-assessment system that, according to critics, allowed some juvenile offenders – including those having consensual sex with a younger partner – to receive a higher risk rating than many serious predators.

Georgia , meanwhile, revised the law that was used to prosecute Wilson , introducing a maximum 12-month punishment for similar offenses.

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