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.
Patchwork of laws
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.”
Some states have moved in recent months to craft so-called Romeo and Juliet exceptions to prevent sexually active teenagers from being lumped together with child molesters.
Indiana changed its law so that teens in “dating relationships” would not be prosecuted. Exactly what that means is unclear, said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.
“I think there is a view now that ’hey, maybe we overdid it on the sex offender registry,”’ Landis said.
Connecticut changed its law to stop prosecuting teens if the age gap is three years or less. And Texas has changed the way it classifies sex offenders so that some low-risk teens will no longer have to register.
Wilson said in an interview Monday that he hopes to use his newfound celebrity to raise awareness among high school and college students. He said sex education classes are lacking.
“Most of the time they just tell kids, ’Use condoms,”’ Wilson told The Associated Press.
“That’s not the only thing they need to know about sex. They need to know that they can actually go to jail.”
Wilson will appear on behalf of an organization set up by his lawyer to help teens learn their rights.
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