|California law brands LGBTQ young adults for sex with teen lovers but treats straight relationships differently.|
(Advocate picture credit)
(In SACRAMENTO) —
If a 19-year-old man is convicted of having sex with his 17-year-old boyfriend in California, he must register as a sex offender. But that may not be the case for a 24-year-old man who gets a 15-year-old girl pregnant — he can avoid that penalty if a judge decides it’s unnecessary.
That disparate treatment lingers from a historic criminalization of gay sex that California struck from law decades ago. Critics warn that it leaves LGBT young people vulnerable to unfair punishment in more conservative parts of the state where local prosecutors might be more inclined to pursue such cases.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, hopes to eliminate the discrepancy with a bill giving judges discretion over sex-offender registration in all cases involving voluntary intercourse between teenagers and young adults.
When California created its sex-offender registry system in 1947, anal and oral sex was illegal, as was vaginal penetration with anything other than a penis. Even after the Legislature decriminalized those acts between consenting adults in 1975, adults who engaged in them with minors continued to be treated more harshly than those who had vaginal intercourse with a minor.
The California Supreme Court upheld the legal difference in 2015. Among its arguments was that vaginal intercourse can lead to pregnancy, and forcing a father to register as a sex offender would subject him to social stigmatization that could make it difficult to find a job and support his child.
Wiener said that decision is to the “eternal shame” of the court. His bill, SB145, would instead treat sex acts the same: Although minors cannot legally consent, if a teenager ages 14 to 17 voluntarily had sex with an adult who is less than 10 years older, the judge would decide whether the adult should register as a sex offender based on the facts of the case.
The measure has support from Equality California, the LGBT advocacy organization, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of California and groups representing district attorneys, police chiefs and public defenders.
It is sponsored by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Deputy District Attorney Bradley McCartt told lawmakers at a Senate committee hearing in April that the bill is about public safety as much as fairness.
It takes the same amount of time to register and track these young adults who are at little risk of re-offending as it does serial rapists and child molesters, McCartt said.
“It’s important to look at the actual purpose of the registry,” McCartt said at the hearing. “Remember, it’s not the punishment for the crime. It’s a public safety issue that has to do with crime-solving and keeping track of predators.”
He told the story of a 17-year-old girl whose mother was upset to find out she was a lesbian. The mother pressed charges against her daughter’s 18-year-old girlfriend. Although McCartt was able to stop the prosecution, he said, the girlfriend still lost a scholarship to a University of California campus as a result.
“It seems like we went in a time machine and pulled out something that I can’t even believe still exists on the books of our penal codes,” McCartt said.
Two years ago, Wiener carried another bill to end automatic lifetime registration for California’s sex offender registry and allow offenders convicted of less-serious crimes to remove their names after 10 or 20 years. Law enforcement officers said that with about 100,000 registered offenders, the database had become too large to be useful.
According to data provided by Wiener’s office, at least 2,400 people on the sex-offender registry, and potentially hundreds more, have been convicted of non-vaginal sex with a minor age 14 or older.
There is no formal opposition to SB145, though some conservative news sites wrote stories after the bill was introduced accusing Wiener of trying to “protect pedophiles who rape children.”
The measure does not apply to forcible sex acts. Wiener noted that it does not change any crimes, merely whether they result in automatic sex offender registration.
“We need to stop criminalizing teenage sex,” he said. “At a minimum, we should not be forcing these kids onto the sex-offender registry and ruining their lives.”
Alexei Koseff is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @akoseff