Statutory Rape Laws and Charges

A person who has sex with someone under the age of consent can face a variety of criminal charges depending on the state.

By , Contributing Author | Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney

Under statutory rape laws, a person who has consensual sex with someone under a certain age risks criminal charges and a jail or prison sentence. Statutory rape laws differ from state to state, and they apply even when both parties are minors.

What Is Statutory Rape? How Is Statutory Rape Defined?

Statutory rape is a crime that involves sexual contact with a person who is under an age specified by law, commonly referred to as the "age of consent." Many states no longer refer to this crime as "statutory rape." The legal term for the crime varies by state. In some states, the offense falls under the state's general rape or sexual assault law. In others, it might be a separate crime, such as sexual intercourse with a minor, sexual assault or abuse of a child, or criminal sexual penetration of a minor.

Age of Consent

Statutory rape crimes reflect society's decision that children under a certain age can't consent to sexual contact or activity because they lack the maturity necessary to make a knowing choice about sexual activity. Based on this, the law might set the legal age of consent for sexual relations at say 15, 16, or 17. Unlike other sex crimes, consent by the underage partner is not a defense against statutory rape.

Strict Liability Crime

To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must intentionally or knowingly commit a criminal act. But that's not the case with statutory rape and other strict liability crimes. The act of having sex with an underage person is a crime solely because of that person's age, regardless of whether the defendant knew the other person's age. In many states, the defendant can be convicted even if the underage person lied about their age.

Is Statutory Rape a Felony?

From state to state, statutory rape crimes can range from misdemeanors to serious felonies, depending primarily on the age of the victim and the defendant. In some states, all statutory rape crimes are felonies. In others, misdemeanor penalties might apply if the victim is very close to the age of consent and the parties are close in age (say a 15- and 17-year-old). Most states impose serious felony penalties, however, whenever a very young victim is involved—such as any child under 12 or 13.

Other factors also can affect the level of the criminal charge, such as the relationship or age difference between the victim and defendant. For instance, if the defendant was in a position of authority over the victim (such as a treating physician, mental health counselor, or school teacher), harsher penalties may apply. These charges might be aggravated rape or a crime addressing sexual misconduct by a person in a position of authority. Also, many state laws impose stiffer felony penalties when the defendant is 18 or older and more than 4 or 5 years older than the victim.

What Are the Penalties for Statutory Rape?

As noted above, the sentence for statutory rape most likely will depend on the ages of the defendant and the victim and the circumstances of the offense. If the offense occurred in a consenting, ongoing relationship between young people close in age, the judge may have the option and willingness to be more lenient.

Jail or Prison Sentences

Punishment for a statutory rape offense varies according to whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony and the degree or seriousness of the felony classification. Misdemeanor offenses normally are punishable by less than a year in jail. The punishment for a felony offense can vary from just over a year for a less serious felony to decades in prison. For instance, an 18-year-old might face jail time or probation for a misdemeanor statutory rape conviction involving his 16-year-old girlfriend. But, a 40-year-old coach could face 20 to 30 years in prison for statutory rape of a 14-year-old student athlete.

Sex Offender Registration

A person convicted of statutory rape in certain states will be required to register as a sex offender. Such registration imposes strict limitations on where a sex offender may live, work, or go to school, and also requires the offender to check in with authorities on a regular basis. A registered sex offender's name is placed on a national database, which is accessible to the public. In many respects, registering as a sex offender is the most onerous of any of the possible punishments, because it labels defendants for the rest of their lives. Some states require juvenile offenders to register as well.

Exceptions to Statutory Rape: Romeo-and-Juliet Laws

Some states have exceptions or allow defenses or reduced penalties when the circumstances involve a relationship between young people close in age or young people who both are under the age of consent. These laws are commonly referred to as "Romeo-and-Juliet" laws, in reference to Shakespeare's young star-crossed lovers.

Under these laws, the young age of the defendant, the age of an older victim, or the small age difference between the accused and the other person can be a complete defense to a charge of statutory rape. In some states, however, these facts may only be "mitigating" factors that lower the level of the offense from perhaps a felony to a misdemeanor or reduce the possible penalties if the defendant is convicted. Some states don't include close-in-age consensual relationships in their definition of statutory rape. Under this type of law, a prosecutor couldn't even file charges because no crime was committed.

Defenses to Statutory Rape

Defenses available to a person charged with a statutory rape crime are limited and depend upon the laws of the state in which the defendant is charged.

Consent Not Typically a Defense

Although the victim's consent itself is not necessarily a defense to statutory rape, it may be if the state in which the defendant is charged has a Romeo-and-Juliet exception or mitigation. The victim's consent is an essential element that a defendant must show in order to take advantage of such a defense.

Reasonable Mistake of Victim's Age

A few states allow defendants to offer evidence that they honestly and reasonably believed the victim to be over the age of consent as a defense to a charge of statutory rape. Most states reject this mistake of age defense and treat the defendant's mistake or ignorance about the victim's age as irrelevant to guilt under statutory rape laws, even where the victim has intentionally misrepresented his or her age.

Controversies Around Statutory Rape Laws

Statutory rape laws are meant to protect children and teenagers from predatory adults. The crime of statutory rape has been controversial because, historically, it has been applied primarily in relationships where the female is underage. Or when both parties are underage, a prosecutor might only charge the male and not the female.

Although most states have made their laws gender neutral, a few states still reference statutory rape as a crime involving a man and an underage girl. You can still find references in statutes referencing crimes against a "chaste" or virgin female. And some states still fail to address same-sex relationships.

See a Lawyer

A conviction of statutory rape can lead to repercussions that affect the defendant's life for many years. If you have been charged with statutory rape or any sex crimes, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your state.

State-by-State Statutory Rape Information

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