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Critics: Laws on teen sex confusing

By Shannon McCaffrey
Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA — The tough Georgia law that sent Genarlow Wilson to prison for having oral sex with a fellow teenager has been watered down. But in Georgia — and in many other states — it’s still a crime for teenagers to have sex, even if they’re close in age.

Legal experts say it’s rare for prosecutors to seek charges. But, as the Wilson case illustrates, they can and sometimes do.

And the rising popularity of sex offender registries can often mean that a teen nabbed for nonviolent contact with someone a year or two younger might face the same public stigma as a dangerous sexual predator.

“It’s ludicrous,” Wilson’s lawyer B.J. Bernstein said. “In order to look tough on crime they (lawmakers) are criminalizing teen sex.”

Wilson was freed Friday after the Georgia Supreme Court found that the 10-year mandatory sentence he received for having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s Eve party in 2003 when he was 17 was cruel and unusual punishment. He had served almost three years in prison.

Georgia’s law has since been rewritten to make the same act a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.

Across the country, ages of consent range from 14 to 18.

Lawyers and health educators say most teens — and even many parents — are unaware that even consensual teenage sex is often a crime. The patchwork of laws and ages from state to state leaves many confused and critics say more education is badly needed.

“We do a disgraceful job of educating kids about the very real consequences that they face,” said J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney who has a new book coming out called “Ignorance Is No Defense: A Teenagers Guide to Georgia Law.”

“If society is going to punish them as adults,” said Morgan, “then society ought to educate them.”

What schools teach in sex-education classes varies from district to district, but Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said those that receive federal funds for abstinence-from-sex education programs are encouraged to teach age of consent laws as part of their classes.

Trudy Higgins-Edison is one such teacher. She began asking a police officer to teach a class on sex and the law to high schoolers at her Sugar Land, Texas, school two years ago. She said it’s probably her most popular class.

“The kids are really engaged and ask a lot of questions,” Higgins-Edison said. “And most of them are completely amazed that they could actually be arrested.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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