New Laws Take 'Romeo' Into Account

Lawmakers across the country are doling out tougher punishments for sex offenders - from satellite tracking to the death penalty - but a handful of states are starting to ease up on penalties in cases of youths arrested for sex.

Laws enacted this year in Connecticut , Florida , Indiana and Texas try to draw clearer distinctions between sexual predators and adolescents who pose less of a risk, such as those caught in so-called "Romeo and Juliet" relationships. Even when adolescents are only a few years apart, consensual sexual encounters can lead to prosecution.

The case in Georgia of former high school football star Genarlow Wilson , who is serving a mandatory 10-year sentence after receiving consensual oral sex from a 15-year-old girl when he was 17, has attracted national attention, sparked bitter debate in the Legislature and will be decided later this year by the state Supreme Court. Even the author of the statute used against Wilson says the sentence is a miscarriage of justice and wasn't the intent of the law.

The new state policies take different approaches but share a goal of preventing low-risk adolescents from facing the same penalties as serious predators. Lawmakers who support the laws emphasize that the measures are not "soft" on crime but are designed to eliminate unintended consequences - such as lifetime inclusion on sex-offender registries for young people convicted of less-serious infractions.

"The typical phone call I would get is the mother of a 20-year-old kid who got caught up in this and is now on the sex-offender registry and it's ruining his life," said Connecticut state Rep. Mike Lawlor (D), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a former prosecutor. Lawlor said states are "getting a little more focused and trying to go after the real predators."

The new laws come amid an ongoing crackdown on sex offenders. States approved scores of measures targeting sex offenders in 2006, restricting where they can live, authorizing Global Positioning System satellites to track where they go and - in Oklahoma and South Carolina - allowing the death penalty for some sex crimes, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. This year has seen a similar flurry of activity intended to clamp down on sex offenders.

Connecticut lawmakers agreed to a compromise that widens the age gap between consenting sexual partners from two years to three, in an attempt to cut down on the number of "Romeo and Juliet" romances prosecuted. The original legislation called for a four-year gap.

Even with the amended gap, the bill was helped significantly because it was attached to a separate "get-tough" sex offender measure, according to Lawlor and state Sen. John A. Kissel (R), who acknowledged that some Republican lawmakers were "very uncomfortable" about expanding the scope of consensual sex.

Florida 's new policy 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.

In Indiana , a change in the law decriminalizes consensual sex between adolescents if they are found by a court to be in a "dating relationship" with an age difference of four years or less. Under the new policy, courts also will have discretion to determine whether violators should be included in the state's sex offender registry.

"A teenager could have a lifetime of hell because of a misplaced tag (as a sex offender). But, on the other hand, society could have a hellish situation if we don't identify the right people," Indiana state Rep. Ralph Foley (R), who co-authored his state's bill, told Stateline.org. "We tried to look at both."

Texas , meanwhile, 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. Based on factors including age and relationship to the victim, the system often over-penalized the young and under-penalized those abusing members of their own family, critics charged. The new system uses revised standards, such as psychological tests, to make assessments.

Mark Chaffin, a researcher with the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth at the University of Oklahoma , said a common complaint about "Romeo and Juliet" cases is that they often are enforced unfairly.

" If they were rigorously enforced across the board, there would massive numbers of adolescents who would adjudicated for these kids of offenses," Chaffin said. "In many cases, they are enforced largely by how angry the parents of the younger party are."  

To many, the case of Wilson highlights the problems with some sex offender laws. Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation and his incarceration has caused heated battles in the Legislature, with some lawmakers scrambling to revise the law to free Wilson and others arguing the court-ordered sentence should stand.  

One person who may influence the state Supreme Court, which has taken up the case, is Matt Towery, a former state representative who authored the law used to prosecute Wilson and who argues it was grossly misinterpreted.  

"The concept that someone could have been stupid enough - much less abusive enough - to apply a 10-year sentence is just incomprehensible," Towery said.