Consequences of a Child Molestation Conviction

Those convicted of child molestation face long prison sentences and must register as a sex offender.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated August 05, 2022

Those convicted of child molestation face a dire reality. The laws governing child molestation vary from state to state, but most jurisdictions mandate long prison sentences and vigorously prosecute child sex abuse cases. When released from prison, those convicted must register as sex offenders, sometimes for life.

This article reviews states' criminal laws on child molestation offenses and the harsh penalties that go along with them.

What Is Child Molestation?

Child molestation can refer to a number of sexual acts performed on or with a child, from inappropriate sexual contact (such as fondling) and penetration to exposure of genitals or making a child view pornographic material. State laws differ in how they define and classify child molestation or child sexual abuse crimes. Your state might refer to such crimes as gross sexual imposition, child sexual assault, criminal sexual conduct, lewd acts with a child, or another name.

What Are the Penalties for Child Molestation?

Convictions of child sexual abuse can be severe. The exact penalties vary by state but often depend on the act involved, the age of the victim, and the defendant's prior convictions.

Felony Penalties for Child Molestation

Child molestation charges generally carry stiff felony penalties with the possibility of years or decades in prison. For example, in Georgia, a person convicted of child molestation faces a prison sentence of 5 to 20 years for a first offense and 10 years to life for subsequent convictions. Child molestation convictions in Indiana can range from a Level 1 to Level 4 felony, with penalties ranging from 2 to 40 years in prison. Washington state has three degrees of child molestation crimes that carry penalties of 5 years, 10 years, and life in prison.

(Ga. Code § 16-6-4; Ind. Code § 35-42-4-3; Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.44.083,- .086, -.089 (2022).)

Sentencing Enhancements for Child Molestation

Most states also have sentencing enhancements that can greatly increase the possible penalties for child molestation or sexual abuse. A defendant might face a sentencing enhancement if:

  • the defendant has prior sex offense convictions
  • the defendant engaged in continuing sexual abuse of a child over a period of time
  • the defendant has a special position of authority over the child (such as a clergyperson, therapist, coach, or teacher)
  • the defendant physically harmed or threatened the child, or
  • the child was younger than a certain age (such as younger than 12, 13, or 14).

A sentencing enhancement could increase the possible prison term, impose a life sentence or mandatory minimum sentence, or prohibit probation or parole for the offense.

Sex Offender Registry

A person convicted of a child sex crime will be required, upon release, to register with their state's sex offender database. Registration can last decades or be required for life. Certain information may be available to the public. Failure to register as required can mean additional criminal charges, often a felony.

Getting Help From a Lawyer

If you've been accused of, or charged with, a child sexual abuse crime, you need to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Most courts deal very seriously with this crime as a matter of social policy and your rights may not be fully protected if you proceed without legal counsel. Even if you consider yourself innocent of the charge, you still need representation. Seek a lawyer in your state who has successfully defended those accused of child molestation.

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