July 15, 2007

“Romeo and Juliet defense” bucks sex offender trend

Back in the day, many 16-year-old girls dated 18- or 19-year-old guys. After all, the conventional wisdom went, girls are more emotionally and physically mature than guys their own age.

That was back before politicians discovered the quintessential vote-enhancing bogeyman, and began enacting an ever-widening array of sex offender laws.

Never mind the growing evidence that such laws may do more harm than good to victims of sex abuse and to society more broadly. Now, in many states, an 18-year-old man who has sex with his younger girlfriend can be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. This limits opportunities for jobs, college, and even for student loans.

Take Indiana. When sex offender registration laws were first enacted there, they were reserved for the most serious of sex offenses, primarily rape. As time went on, more and more offenses were added, until some sexually active teenagers in dating relationships found themselves caught up in the political dragnet.

But now, Indiana legislators have created a loophole for teenagers in love.

Public Law 216, which went into effect this month, decriminalizes consensual sex among teenagers in a dating relationship if their age difference is within four years. The new law can protect a 19-year-old man from felony charges if he has sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

It will be up to the accused to prove all the elements of the new “Romeo and Juliet defense.” He must be younger than 21, he must be in a dating relationship with the girl, and she must be at least 14.

The state prosecutors' association, Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, supported the legislation.

One thing about pendulums is that they always swing. If it’s swung to its most extreme side in Indiana, I suspect it may start swinging back toward moderation in other states as well.

Public Law 216, also called House Enrolled Act 1386, is available online. In the "Go to Bill" box, type 1386. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Enrolled Act." New portions of the statute are in bold type.

For an excellent opinion piece on the unintended consequences of sex offender laws, see Amanda Rogers’
blog. Also see my April 10 blog post, "Sex Offender Laws Gone Amok," for some extreme examples of sex offender laws in practice.