Is it Illegal to Have Sex? The Michigan “Romeo and Juliet” Law

Most states have what are referred to as statutory rape laws. Such laws typically make it illegal for anyone to have sex with a minor, though the definition of minor varies from state to state. In many states, the punishment for statutory rape is the same as the punishment for other sex crimes: in addition to incarceration, the offender must register as a sex offender for several years or for the rest of his or her life. When applied to non-violent youthful offenders, many feel that such a punishment is unfair and unwarranted. Until recently, Michigan’s statutory rape law required that a person convicted of having sex with a minor between the ages of 13 and 16 register as sex offender with the Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry. The older person would be the offender. Thus, if a 16-year old had “consensual” sex with his 15-year old girlfriend or boyfriend, that 16-year old would have to register as a sex offender for at least 15 years. On July 1, 2011, the law changed. While it is still illegal to have sex with a person age 13-16, if the age of the offender is within 4 years of the “victim” and the offender is 18-years old or younger, the punishment would not include having to register as a sex offender. This new law is referred to as the “Romeo and Juliet Law.”

Consequence of statutory rape laws
Statutory rape laws were put in place to protect children from sexual predators. The rationale is that minors under a certain age do not have the mental or emotional capacity to consent to sex. Thus, even if a child in the protected age group was not physically forced, and in fact agreed to the sexual or even initiated it, it would be a crime to have sex with that child. As a consequence, the offender would have criminal record.

Each time such a convicted offender applies to certain educational programs, or applies to any program that requires a background check, he or she will be flagged as having a criminal record. Many employers may be willing to overlook some criminal offenses, especially those committed by teenagers. Many young people have what some might consider as “petty” brushes with the laws, but clean up their acts to become productive citizens. This is one reason that juvenile records are often sealed or expunged. However, if the words “sex offender” are attached to a job applicant, or any other type of applicant, that application will likely quickly be turned down.

Furthermore, with the recent violence in schools, many schools now have security systems in place that require background checks in order to enter schools. If someone is a registered sex offender that person will not be permitted to enter the school, even if the person is a parent of a child attending that school.

Romeo and Juliet Law
Under the Romeo and Juliet law, while Michigan recognizes that teenagers engage in consensual sex it still prohibits such acts. It simply changes the punishment. If the older of the two “consenting” teens is age18 or younger and is within 4 years of the other teen, the punishment now does not include registering as a sex offender. However, the older teen still faces the possibility of jail time and will still have a criminal record. The change to the law only applies where the younger teen is age 13-16 and does not apply in cases where the sex was forcible. The law is not necessarily retroactive. However, a criminal defense attorney can petition to have a person convicted of such sexual misconduct removed from the registry, if the circumstances fit the Romeo and Julie law.

While the Romeo and Juliet law gives a nod to the reality that teenagers have sex, the law does not change that fact that the legislature deems teenage sex as illegal. Thus, it still reflects a paternalistic attitude that teenagers do not have the mental capacity to consent to sex. While most adults would prefer for teenagers to not engage in sex, it is likely that most would also agree that doing so should not be a criminal act. Given societal realities, do you think that sex between two consenting teens should be illegal?

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