This article, scripted by Linda Lowen for About.com, addresses the Romeo & Juliet Law which Florida, Indiana, Connecticut and Texas adopted in 2007. This law allows a teen whose sexual partner is at least 14-years-of-age and 4 years younger or less, to be exempt from the Sexual Offender registry. When Shakespeare brought Romeo and Juliet to life, he was intentional in choosing two young characters as his protagonists. Then as now, two teens having consensual sex is understandable. But an adult molesting a child is reprehensible.
The difference between the two situations would seem obvious. But in many states in the U.S., legally speaking, there’s little distinction between Romeo and Juliet’s mutual decision and the abusive actions of a child molester. An older teen who has sex with his younger girlfriend can be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for the act. Even worse, he may carry the stigma of being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. The problem typically arises when the male is 18 or 19, the female is between 14 and 16, and the parent of the younger teen presses charges. (Even Romeo would be labeled a sex offender today, as he was believed to be 16 and Juliet 13 when their relationship began). In Florida, a person under the age of 24 would not be prosecuted for an act of consensual sex with a minor aged 16 or 17.
The age of consent varies from state to state, in Florida it is 18. This is the age at which an individual can legally agree to have sex and refers to sexual acts between heterosexuals. In over half the states in the U.S., sex between homosexuals is either not addressed by existing laws or is considered a crime. Recent changes in the laws governing consensual sex between minors or an adult 18 years of age and a minor 14-16 years of age have acknowledged that this intimacy is not the same as molestation. The Romeo & Juliet laws attempt to correct overly harsh penalties and prison terms meted out over the years.
In Florida, a 28-year-old man who’d been placed on the state’s sex offender registry was able to remove his name after passage of Florida’s Romeo and Juliet law. At age 17, Anthony Croce began having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend; when he turned 18, the girl’s disapproving mother pressed charges and Croce plead ‘no contest’. He was then legally compelled to register as a sex offender. Florida’s new law still regards underage sex as a crime, but a judge may now determine whether to strike the sex offender designation from those previously convicted. Cases that may lead to an overturned designation would involve a victim who is age 14-17 and has agreed to consensual sex; the offender would have to be no more than 4 years older than the victim and have no other sex crimes on his record.
One well-publicized case demonstrating the need for Romeo and Juliet legislation is that of Genarlow Wilson, a 17-year-old who was imprisoned for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old female. An athlete and honor student, Wilson was videotaped at a New Year’s Eve celebration engaging in oral sex and was sentenced to 10 years for aggravated child molestation. After serving jail time from 2003-2007, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Wilson should be released; and this decision was followed by a change in state law that reduced consensual sex between teenagers to a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year.
See ‘Ages of Consent’ for North American states and jurisdictions:
For more info on this topic, see the ‘Relief for Teens’ blog.