If someone is charged with statutory rape and then ultimately convicted, it can stay with them for a lifetime. These are serious charges, and depending on the state someone’s convicted in, there can be penalties that include more than a decade of imprisonment, long-term supervised probation, and tens of thousands of dollars or more in fines.

While each state has its own laws regarding statutory rape, below are some of the general things to know about this serious criminal charge and its implications.

What Is Statutory Rape?

a depressed teen girl

Statutory rape is a crime when someone has sex with a minor. The sex isn’t forced—both parties agree and consent to it. The reason that it’s considered rape or a sexual crime is that there is a minor involved. As a minor, the younger person isn’t considered legally able to consent to sexual contact or sex. The age that someone is considered too young to consent varies by state and also can vary by differing crimes.

If an adult, for example, has so-called consensual sex with someone who’s under the age of 12, that could have a heavy sentence that goes with it and be considered first-degree rape. If an adult has consensual sex with someone who’s 16 years old, the sentence could be lighter, and it might be legally considered third-degree rape.

For victims who are 16 or 17 years old, then the adult may have to be anywhere from 5 to 10 years older than the minor, but it depends on the state.

Each state, while it can be different in its specifics, does have laws against engaging in sexual acts with minors. This includes not just sexual intercourse but other forms of sexual contact.

Rape Vs. Statutory Rape

Statutory Rape

Rape is sexual intercourse that’s committed through force and isn’t consensual. It can also be committed through fear or threats.

In terms of the law, rape is when sexual intercourse occurs, while some states have expanded their legal definition to include nonconsensual penetration by other body parts or even objects.

Under state law, there is usually the inclusion of situations where someone prevents a victim from being able to consent by giving them drugs or alcohol, poses as a public official, and then threatens arrest or deportation unless a victim agrees to sex or acts with the knowledge, or the victim has a disability or disorder preventing them from legally consenting.

Some states will divide rape into degrees. For example, first-degree rape could include severe physical injuries, and in this case, the punishment would be harsher than for second-degree rape.

There are also laws regarding rape between married partners. In the majority of states, even if a couple is married, it’s irrelevant legally when there’s nonconsensual sex.

Up to the 1970s, evidence rules often led to discouragement of rape victims from reporting these crimes. Since then, because of women’s rights activities and groups, there have been major shifts in laws regarding rape evidence, so they have begun to favor victims.

For example, it used to be that it wasn’t allowed for there to be any inquiry into past sexual crimes of a defendant. Now, when defendants are charged with crimes that are sexual in nature, the prosecution can and often does provide evidence of these past offenses.

When discussing rape, there are also two other distinctions often made—stranger rape versus date rape.

Stranger rape, as the name implies, is when a previously unknown individual attacks a victim. Date rape is what happens when the rapist and the victim have a social relationship that already exists, and the rapist will commit a crime in the midst of that relationship. Date rape is a lot more common than stranger rape, but it can be harder to prove.

Statutory Rape Differences

Compared to rape, again, statutory rape doesn’t include force. When we hear the word rape, we tend to automatically think about a sexual encounter that was forced, but no force is required for someone to be violating statutory rape laws.

In most places, as far as sexual contact goes, the age of consent is 16, but some states set it at 17 or 18.

The concept under the law is that if someone is younger than the age of consent, they aren’t mature enough to make sexual decisions. Society is attempting to protect young people by creating criminal consequences for people who have sex with them or have any type of sexual contact.

In the past, statutory rape was considered a strict liability offense. This means it was irrelevant whether the person committing the crime knew they were too young to consent or not. Some states now allow a defense of making an honest mistake, basically meaning the defendant might argue they didn’t know the person’s age.

What Affects The Punishment?

police handcuffing a man

The typical punishment for statutory rape is usually jail time, along with a fine. Often, people convicted of statutory rape have to register as sex offenders.

There are factors impacting a sentence, including the age difference between the two people involved, whether the defendant and victim are part of the same household, and whether the person who committed the act is a teacher or works at the school of the victim. If the person committing statutory rape has other sex offenses, this also factors into their punishment.

There are close-in-age laws that have been enacted in a number of states too. These are known as “Romeo and Juliet laws,” which outline different sets of rules and standards if an offender is only a bit older than the minor.

In New Jersey, to provide one example, having sex with someone who’s underage is considered sexual assault only if one person is four or more years older.

In other states, like Georgia, the close-in-age defense isn’t going to completely shield the person committing the act from legal consequences, but it can lower the level of the offense to a misdemeanor.

Finally, there are certain groups of professionals who are required to report statutory rape if they suspect it, including medical professionals and people with close access to children, like teachers. There are mandatory reporting requirements that are part of state law in most places.

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