By Radley Balko . . . The video below tells the story of Shawna, an Oklahoma woman who is still in mandatory treatment because 15 years ago, when she was 19, she had sex with a boy who was 14. Over at the Marshall Project, David Feige has more about the unlikely people swept up in the sex-offender panic for offenses most of us wouldn’t associate with a typical sexual predator. Take the case of Adrian:
Adrian was a junior at North Dakota State majoring in business management, when he travelled to Miami for spring break. There, he met a girl at an 18-and-over club. They flirted and danced, then walked to the beach where they had sex. They spent about five days together, hanging out on and off and occasionally hooking up.
Adrian returned to college after the trip and all seemed well, until seven months later when he got a call from a detective with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As it turns out, the girl had used a fake ID to get into the club. She was actually 15 years old at the time. Her mom filed a complaint when she found out what had happened.
Asked to return to Miami to answer some questions, Adrian took a bus back to Florida. He explained to the detective that everything was consensual, and that he’d assumed the girl must have been 18 or older since she was in the club. Officers recorded his statement, thanked him for his co-operation, handcuffed him and placed him under arrest. Unable to post the $40,000 bond set by a judge, Adrian remained in jail for nearly eight months. It was the first and only time he’d ever been arrested.
In Florida, as in most other states, the fact that the girl was a willing participant was not a defense. Having admitted to the affair and facing some twenty years in prison, Adrian had no choice but to plead guilty to four counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a person under 16. That guilty plea guaranteed he’d spend the rest of his life listed on Florida’s sex offender registry . . .
Five years after his guilty plea, Adrian had been rejected from more jobs than he could count. Unable to find housing that complied with a Miami ordinance that prevents registrants from living within 2,500 feet of any public or private school, daycare center or playground, Adrian was was forced into homelessness. He slept in a car parked in a lot — one of the few places sex offenders are actually allowed to reside. His college career was over, as was any hope he ever harbored of having a productive life. Then, two years ago, almost a decade after his conviction, Adrian failed to properly register his whereabouts with the police. As a result, he was sentenced to three years in prison.
Yes, we should discourage 19-year-olds from having sex with 14-year-olds, and 21-year-olds from having sex with 15-year-olds. But these people aren’t predators. They aren’t pedophiles. They showed poor judgment and had non-coercive sex with partners who were physically mature. (Yes, the law says any sex with a minor is de facto coercive.) Perhaps we should punish them, but we shouldn’t seek to utterly destroy them. And in Adrian’s case, the lack of intent makes what happened to him all the more unjust. It’s all the worse when you consider how little evidence there is that these laws do anything to protect society from actual predators.
Meanwhile, the Washington state Supreme Court has just upheld a state law allowing prosecutors to charge minors who send nude photos of themselves to other people …. as child pornographers. If convicted, that means mandatory prison time and a lifetime on the sex-offender list.
The justification for the ruling and the law it upheld is that these laws protect children from predators. Which is to say that Washington state is prepared to stop minors from being harmed … by ruining their lives. It’s hard to come up with a better illustration of the absurdity with which we approach these issues than that.
This opinion is republished from The Washington Post.