Statutory rape refers to sexual relations involving someone below the "age of consent." People below the age of consent cannot legally consent to having sex. This means that sex with them, by definition, violates the law.
Statutory rape laws vary by state, with states setting the age of consent differently, as well as using different names to refer to this crime. Many states punish statutory rape under laws addressing sexual assault, rape, unlawful sexual intercourse or carnal knowledge of a child. There are very few federal laws dealing with statutory rape.
No Requirement of Force
Statutory rape differs from other types of rape, and from child molestation, in that the act would not be a crime if all participants were above the age of consent. Unlike "forcible rape," statutory rape can involve underage participants who willingly engage in sexual relations. However, because those under the age of consent cannot give legal consent to sex, the act is a crime whether or not force is involved. If the act involves force or coercion, many states prosecute the offender under the separate statutes punishing child molestation or aggravated rape.
Age of Consent
The age of consent varies from state to state. Many states set the age of consent at 16 years old, while others set it at 17 or 18.
Historically, statutory rape has been a "strict liability" offense, meaning that it does not matter whether what the perpetrator believed the victim was old enough to consent to sex. Some states now allow the defense that the perpetrator had reason to believe, and did believe, that the minor was above the age of consent. However, in many states this defense is not allowed, meaning that the act was a crime regardless of what the perpetrator believed the victims age to be. In states that do allow such a defense, it often cannot be used if the victim was particularly young, commonly under the age of 14.
Factors Affecting the Level of Offense Charges and Penalties
Laws punishing statutory rape often include a spectrum of offenses, ranging from misdemeanors to high level felonies. In general, two main factors affect the level of offense for an act of statutory rape: (1) the age of the victim; and (2) the age difference between victim and perpetrator. Other factors, including any prior sex offenses committed by the offender, whether drugs or alcohol were involved, and whether pregnancy resulted, can also affect the level of charge imposed.
For example, in some states sexual relations with someone less than 12 or 14 years old constitutes a first degree felony, while sex with someone older but still below the age of consent, might be a misdemeanor or lower level felony. In other states, any act of statutory rape constitutes a felony, with serious and sometimes mandatory jail sentences resulting.
State laws vary widely on these factors, with almost each state using a different calculation method to classify the level of offense. The range of offenses within a single state can involve multiple factors and include a broad range of charges.
Some states impose harsher penalties when the offender is a certain number of years older than the victim. Other state have statutes in which the age of the perpetrator alone (over 21, for example), pushes the act into a higher level of offense.
Punishment for statutory rape can include mandatory prison or jail sentences, probation, fines, and mandated treatment services. Many states require those convicted of statutory rape to register as sex offenders.
"Romeo and Juliet Laws"
To address sexual relations in which all participants are below the age of consent, or which involve an offender close in age to the minor, some states have enacted what have been called "Romeo and Juliet laws." These laws carve out different treatment of statutory rape offenses involving individuals close in age.
Not all states have adopted "Romeo and Juliet" laws, and such laws operate differently in many of the states which have adopted them. In some states, they allow a defense against criminal charges for statutory rape. In other states, they shift the offense to a lower level, such as a misdemeanor. In some places, Romeo and Juliet laws reduce the level of punishment for the offense - imposing only probation or a fine, or eliminating the requirement to register as a sex offender, for example.
Professionals Required to Report
Some states require certain classes of professionals to report knowledge or suspicion of statutory rape to authorities. Types of professionals required to report statutory rape often include teachers, medical professionals, public employees, and clergy, among others.
Statutory rape is a state sex crime that can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor offense and may be punishable by incarceration, fine, probation, and/or registry as a sex offender, depending on the state and circumstances of the incident.