Senate Criminal Justice Reform Bill Would Change Laws on Teenage Sex

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School juniors Gilli Danenberg and Gabriele Vonsteiger discuss the “Romeo and Juliet” provision of the proposed criminal justice reform bill. Photo by Ashley Barquin / BU News Service

By Ashley Barquin
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE A provision in the Senate’s recently approved criminal justice reform bill would create an age-exception excusing the 16-year-old age of consent in Massachusetts for select reasons.

The “Romeo and Juliet” provision included in the bill passed this winter prevents the prosecution of consensual sex between teenagers over 13 who are less than two years apart in age.

Cambridge parents and high schoolers expressed varied concerns when learning of the provision intended to protect minors from lifelong sentences.

“Romeo and Juliet” provision broken down

Under current Massachusetts Statutory Rape Law , having sex with persons under 16 leads to imprisonment and mandatory sex offender registration, even if the younger party consents.

Criminal charges brought against adolescents, usually by a parent who disapproves of a relationship between two parties, are “heavy,” Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen said.

“Let me be clear: I don’t think that it’s a good idea to engage in sex before high school graduation but I don’t think it should be a criminal matter,” Jehlen said.

Nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys, in a letter first published by the Boston Globe, criticized several aspects of the proposed bill, including the new provision, saying changes to existing laws are “dangerous” to young girls and women.

Map of states throughout the country that have implemented similar “Romeo and Juliet” policies*

Students weigh in

After school ended on a recent afternoon, some Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CLRS) students shared their conflicting opinions on the provision.

Gilli Danenberg said she feared more abusive relationships would form.

“If you’re younger and you’re in a bad position and you go for someone who’s older and the older person pressures you into having sex, that’s really dangerous,” said Danenberg, 16. “I feel bad for the vulnerable girls who are going to be in that position.”

Tenth-grader Kamaal Waterman worried about teenage social and health consequences.  

“Younger people shouldn’t be able to have sex because, if it’s unprotected, it’s going to lead to higher abortion rates,” Waterman said. “Then kids are going to dropout of school and try to find the funds to support their kids.”

Tenth-grader Nicholas Oliveira-Chace is assured the provision would be “healthier” for minors.

“There wouldn’t be so much tension,” Oliveira-Chace said. “It would just be better for everyone if no one had to worry about there being legal issues if they’re having consenting sex with someone they like.”

Parents weigh in

While not a representative poll of all parents, parents strolling past City Hall and Harvard Square voiced contrasting concerns.

Teenagers below the age of 16 are not developmentally prepared for sex, said mother Billie J. Joy outside City Hall.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about sex, a lot of pressure for young people to have some kind of identity around it, of conquering it,” Joy said. “It should not be treated as a regular crime but I also think there’s so much lack of information out there for kids.”

Michael Rosero, father of two, considered the provision’s positive impacts on youth.

“No young person is reading the law and saying, ‘Is it okay for me to have sex at 14?’” said Rosero, 41, watching his son and daughter throw snowballs in the Square. “I think it could potentially help children avoid longer-term effects under their academic, job and psychological well-being.”

Criminal justice reform expert explains

The provision is a “public health intervention,” explained a reform expert from Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to improving the juvenile justice system.

Teenagers might avoid the lifelong stigmas of prosecution through the provision, said Sana Fadel, deputy director at CFJJ.

“Being placed on the sex offender registry has its snowball effect in terms of disengaging young people from positive interactions in their community, like keeping them away from school,” said Fadel. “They’re just more likely to slip into other behavior that might lead to incarceration long-term.”

Teenagers might also feel more comfortable seeking advice from adults on sexual and relationship health, said Fadel.

“If we share concerns about young people being healthy and safe, scapegoating another person is not the way to do it,” said Fadel.

 *Information displayed on the map is based on a table listing age-exemption data analyzed by Sen. Will Brownberger’s office. Created by Ashley Barquin / BU News Service.

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