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Sexually active teens in Georgia are not just worrying their parents — if they’re younger than 16 they’re also breaking the law. Georgia has tough statutes that criminalize sexual activity between consenting youths. Recently the legislature has made these laws tougher. And, in some counties, law enforcement is cracking down. A few weeks ago a 21-year-old Rockdale County woman was arrested on statutory rape charges. She may face up to 20 years in prison for having sex with her boyfriend, now her 14-year-old husband, with whom she has had a child. Days after her arrest, police charged a 17-year-old Rockdale High student with statutory rape after a teacher allegedly caught the boy and his 14-year-old girlfriend having sex on school property. The girl has been charged with fornication. Once again, teen sexual activity has brought attention to the county that was the setting for the celebrated “Frontline” television documentary, “The Lost Children of Rockdale County.” But prosecutions for consensual youth sex are not limited to Rockdale. They are occurring throughout Georgia and other states. WAR AGAINST ‘ILLEGITIMACY’ In the past, the statutory rape laws of most states — which define when minors are too young to consent to sex — mainly were used in rape cases where the element of force could not be proved. But that began to change in the early 1990s during the debate over welfare reform. Politicians became aware of studies that showed that many infants born to minors are fathered by adults. They decided to remedy this by going after older men, a group they believed were preying on young women, fathering their nonmarital children and draining federal and state coffers. Welfare reform became law just over four years ago when President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Act of 1996. The legislation is based on the declaration that “marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” And that “an effective strategy to combat teenage pregnancy must address the issue of male responsibility, including statutory rape culpability and prevention.” Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., spearheaded the amendment to the welfare reform bill that addressed statutory rape. In 1995 Lieberman told fellow senators, “One of the dreadful facts that comes out as we go over this problem of teen pregnancies is that a remarkable percentage of the babies born to teen-age mothers have been fathered by men who are considerably older. … And there is not much we can do in Washington to deal with that except to … try to encourage the states, the local prosecuting attorneys, the district attorneys to be very aggressive in working with welfare authorities to once again take statutory rape as a serious crime and to prosecute it.” To reduce nonmarital births among teens the welfare law urges states to aggressively enforce their statutory rape laws. It requires states to include in their welfare plans education and training programs on statutory rape for law enforcement officials, counselors and educators. In Rockdale County, high school officials have signed on to the idea behind the law. Heritage High counselor Judy Pressley Hauk says she tells teens that having sex is a legal, as well as a moral, decision. The school hands out wallet-size, laminated cards that outline the statutory rape law and penalties. GEORGIA JOINING BATTLE? DeKalb County District Attorney J. Thomas “Tom” Morgan III says he and his colleagues have debated the objectives of the welfare reform act, but that no one from state government has approached him about increasing consensual teen sex prosecutions. “I totally disagree that there will be a decline in the teen-age birth rate,” he says. “These morality issues need to be decided somewhere else.” Other prosecutors around the state also say no one has approached them to increase prosecutions. However, in 1995 the legislature raised the age of consent from 14 to 16. In 1996 they added provisions in the statutory rape law to arrest women for the crime. And another recent change orders a 10-year mandatory prison sentence for statutory rapists who are 21 years of age or older. “When we changed the law to under-16 these issues became a lot more difficult,” Morgan says. “The legislature changed it to 16 without asking any prosecutor.” Former state Sen. Steve Langford of LaGrange, Ga., sponsored the measure to raise the age of consent. Langford says reducing teen pregnancy was a goal of the legislation. “We didn’t have definitive numbers about what we thought the reduction would be, but we saw that the father was often three years older,” he says. “We felt that the added threat … would be a very positive thing,” he says. Langford says he is pleased that the number of statutory rape prosecutions has increased. “The pure fact that the numbers have increased significantly validates that law. I am delighted that there are a lot more cases,” he says. “I would have increased the age to 18 if I could have gotten it passed.” Langford, who ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1997, acknowledges that “it’s a tough issue.” But he says the line needed to be drawn somewhere. He drew the line at 15, he says, based on recommendations from health-care professionals, social workers and other experts in child development. PUZZLING STATUTES Three Georgia statutes come into play in consensual youth sex prosecutions, explains DeKalb DA Morgan. These are the statutory rape law and those for child molestation and aggravated child molestation. In Morgan’s experience the crimes are not being punished as harshly as they could be under the law. But, he says, the possibility of selective prosecution makes the laws troubling. A person commits statutory rape in Georgia “when he or she engages in sexual intercourse with any person under the age of 16 years and not his or her spouse, provided that no conviction shall be had for this offense on the unsupported testimony of the victim.” A person commits child molestation “when he or she does any immoral or indecent act to or in the presence of or with any child under the age of 16 years with the intent to arouse or satisfy the sexual desires of either the child or the person.” Child molestation becomes aggravated when an act of sodomy occurs. Although these statutes designate the age of the victim — under 16 — they do not designate an age for the perpetrator. So, for example, two 15-year-olds who have intercourse are each, under the law, both victim and sex offender. The possible punishments are as harsh as they are confusing. Under the statutory rape law, if the victim is 14 or 15 and the offender is no more than three years older, the offender has only committed a misdemeanor. However, two 15-year-olds who fondle each other but stop short of intercourse have both committed child molestation — a felony punishable with a jail sentence of no less than five and no more than 20 years in prison. If the couple engages in oral sex it’s Sodom — one of Georgia’s seven deadly sins — punishable by no less than 10 and no more than 20 years in prison. “Sit down with a teen-ager and try to explain the logical sense of that,” says District Attorney Morgan. Morgan, who holds workshops for teens about sex crimes, encourages the adolescents who attend to write their questions to him and place them in an anonymous drop box. He answers them at the end of his lecture and saves some to read to parents to whom he also speaks. The teens’ questions reflect their confusion. They wonder, how can an act that can result in pregnancy be a misdemeanor, while sexual acts that do not include intercourse result in a 20-year prison sentence? TEEN SEX PROSECUTIONS RISE Since the age of consent was raised, district attorneys throughout the state have seen an increase in prosecutions. When the sex is volitional, and between young adults, the cases are quite difficult. Morgan explains that grand juries often serve as buffers and have refused several times to enforce the state’s laws — even when faced with overwhelming evidence. Morgan recalls the case of a University of Georgia student, home for the summer and working at Stone Mountain. He had a relationship with a 15-year-old who he thought was 17. The young woman wrote about their relationship in her diary, and her mother read it. The mother took out a warrant charging statutory rape and the student was arrested. Although he claimed not to have known the girl’s age, ignorance is no defense to the crime. The grand jury refused to indict, Morgan says. The DA recalls another case where a boy who had just turned 17 and a girl just shy of 16 had videotaped their sexual acts. A sibling found the tape, showed it to their father, and the boy was arrested. Although the grand jury had the video in hand, although the evidence was right there, they refused to indict. Whitfield County, Ga., District Attorney Kermit McManus says he has seen situations where the young couple is married, has children, and where the couple’s parents were outraged by the prosecution. These cases are “very, very difficult,” he says. “We feel an obligation to prosecute — we have the evidence and it’s a crime,” he says. Often McManus will take the case to the grand jury, which he says “should serve as a conscience.” Says McManus, “Frankly, we get varying results.” McManus says although his office “isn’t opening bedroom doors,” it does take an aggressive approach to these cases, and there are plenty of them. He estimates that last year there were roughly 20 to 30 cases involving consensual sex between young people. Henry County, Ga., District Attorney Tommy K. Floyd says his office will prosecute all known lawbreakers, plain and simple. “If they violate the statute, they will be prosecuted,” he says. “I have not in 20 years as a prosecutor refused to prosecute a statutory rape case that has been presented to me,” he says. “Very often they’re reported by the victim’s parents,” he says. Cases also come to his office by way of school officials, doctors and the Department of Family and Children’s Services, he says. Floyd says his office could conceivably “devise some type of prosecutorial strategy” to handle activities at a particular school — although his office has not been faced with that. Cobb County, Ga., District Attorney Patrick C. Head says he doesn’t keep statistics about how many youthful offenders his office prosecutes for statutory rape. “I don’t care,” he says. Head questions whether national statistics showing that 25 percent of 15-year-old girls are sexually active apply to Georgia. “There may be more of that in Florida,” he chuckles. “The proportion of kids that are in these situations is quite large,” says Freya Sonenstein of the Urban Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. Nationwide, 25 percent of 15-year-old women and 27 percent of 15-year-old men have had intercourse, she says. And 75 percent of sexually active 15-year-old women have partners who are between one and three years older than they are. Ten percent of these women have partners who are four or more years older, she says. “I think this is something that we as citizens, lawmakers and administrators need to revisit,” says Alma Burney Turner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources’ Division of Public Health and its Office of Adolescent Health and Youth Development. Turner fears the threat of prosecution might discourage teens from seeking appropriate health care. We already know young females have become pregnant and have waited until they go into labor to seek health care, she says. And, she says, “when we talk about health we are not just talking about physical health.” UNDERLYING RACISM? Some question whether Georgia’s laws against consensual underage sex are more invidious. Leonard Danley, a defense lawyer in Douglas County, says in the past year he has personally handled five such cases. In all of them, he says, the defendant was a black male and the victim a white female. It has come to the point, he says, that when a young black man walks into his office and tells him that he has been charged with a consensual sex crime, his first question is: Was she white? The answer is always yes, Danley says. Danley recalls that, years ago, when he served as a justice of the peace, he would get calls from parents seeking arrest warrants for their daughters’ boyfriends. The callers didn’t know that Danley was black. The stories they told seemed to be “typical teen-age stories,” and didn’t seem to justify warrants, he says. But, when Danley pressed, the parents reluctantly admitted the boy was black. “They just don’t believe in mixing,” Danley says. Race aside, the criminalization of underage sex presents problems, Danley says. “I think what’s wrong is that it is selective prosecution,” he says. Danley knows a teen couple where the girl is 15 and the boy 19 and they are living in the home of the girl’s parents �- with the parents’ blessing. He doesn’t think that’s right, he says, but “a lot of people do that.” Danley thinks the legislature went in the wrong direction when they raised the age of consent from 14 to 16. “For all these years they determined that a young lady under 14 was not competent to consent. Now, in this modern age, they determine that women are becoming less competent.”

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