Aggravated Sexual Assault Charges and Penalties

States often elevate sexual assault and rape crimes to aggravated offenses if they involve bodily harm, threats of harm, vulnerable victims, or other harmful conduct.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

All states criminalize sexual assault and rape crimes. Most have degrees of sexual offenses, with aggravated sexual assault and rape crimes being some of the most serious. A sexual assault might be aggravated if the offender causes bodily harm to a victim, targets an especially vulnerable victim, or engages in other harmful conduct.

This article reviews common aggravating factors for sexual assault crimes and their increased penalties.

What Is Aggravated Sexual Assault or Aggravated Rape?

A person commits sexual assault or rape by engaging in nonconsensual sexual intercourse or penetration (vaginal, anal, or oral) with another. The offense becomes aggravated sexual assault when the circumstances of the crime increase in severity, which might include harming the victim, targeting a vulnerable victim, or engaging in other harmful conduct.

Some states use the term "aggravated" sexual assault or rape. Others have degrees of sexual assault crimes with first degree being the most serious and generally the equivalent of aggravated sexual assault in other states.

How Do States Define Aggravated Sexual Assault?

The circumstances that distinguish aggravated sexual assault from non-aggravated vary from state to state. Below are common circumstances that elevate the crime of sexual assault to an aggravated offense.

Bodily Harm or Threats of Harm

States typically consider sexual assault an aggravated offense if the offender:

  • causes serious physical harm to a victim
  • uses, displays, or threatens the victim with a deadly weapon during the offense
  • attempts to kill the victim or another person during the commission of the assault, or
  • uses force or violence or acts with extreme indifference to human life during the commission of the assault.

Victim Vulnerability

Targeting especially vulnerable victims in a sexual assault can also result in aggravated charges. A vulnerable victim may include:

  • an elderly adult or young child
  • the offender's biological or adopted child, stepchild, foster child, or a close blood relation
  • a victim with a physical or mental impairment, or
  • a victim who is temporarily or permanently unable to give consent as a result of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, asleep, or unconscious.

Aggravated charges may also apply if there's a power imbalance between the victim and offender. This power imbalance can be any position of authority over the victim—professional, legal, occupational, or other. Examples include when the offender is the victim's doctor, therapist, clergy leader, teacher, coach, mentor, or boss.

Other Harmful Conduct

Other common aggravating factors for sexual offenses include the following circumstances:

  • the sexual assault was committed during the commission or attempted commission of another felony such as kidnapping, robbery, homicide, aggravated assault, burglary, arson, or escape from jail or prison
  • the offender was aided by or committed the assault with one or more other persons, or
  • the offender used a drug to incapacitate the victim.

What Are the Penalties for Aggravated Sexual Assault?

Penalties for sexual assault crimes vary by state. But, generally speaking, states reserve some of their harshest penalties for aggravated sex crimes. These penalties might include long prison sentences, mandatory or minimum sentences, restrictions or prohibitions on probation or parole eligibility, and required sex offender treatment.

Increased Prison Sentences

Sexual assault crimes are generally felonies that carry the possibility of years in prison. For sexual assault or rape, prison sentences might range from 5 to 20 years (or more). A person convicted of aggravated rape, though, could face decades to life in prison.

Minimum and Mandatory Sentences

Mandatory sentences are some of the harshest penalties imposed by states, because judges are not supposed to deviate from them, even if the offender expresses remorse or other mitigating circumstances exist. Because aggravated sexual assault is considered a serious violent offense, many states set minimum or mandatory prison terms in such cases. This is especially true if the offender brandished or used a weapon or is a repeat offender.

Prohibiting Probation or Parole Eligibility

Another way states increase penalties for crimes is by restricting or denying an offender eligibility for probation or parole.

Probation allows an offender to serve all or part of their sentence in the community. If an offender isn't probation eligible, they must serve their entire sentence in prison.

Many states offer parole or supervised release as incentives for inmates to exhibit good behavior in prison. Inmates who earn "good time" can be released early from prison (and supervised in the community). For heinous crimes, a state might eliminate parole as an option altogether or take other punitive actions, such as pushing out an inmate's parole eligibility date or reducing the amount of "good time" an inmate can earn.

Sex Offender Treatment Requirements

A state might impose sex offender treatment requirements for offenders convicted of aggravated sexual assault. Mandatory treatment, whether in prison or on probation, normally consists of individual or group counseling, specific sex offender programs, and possibly medication.

Legal Representation

Aggravated sexual assault or rape is a very serious crime. Defendants face the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence and life as convicted felons. Anyone convicted of aggravated sexual assault will also be required to register as a sex offender. If you have accusations or charges for aggravated rape or similar charges, contact a criminal defense attorney.

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