Friday, March 14, 2008

ABC 20.20: presentation of controversies around "age of consent"

Tonight, libertarian-leaning John Stossel did, on the second hour of ABC "20/20", a major story on the issue of The Age of Consent. The show amounted to a probing, hour-long "Give me a break!" in which Stossel examined both inconsistencies among states and how the desire to protect minors and convey a sense of "public morality" can have horrible unintended consequences, with some people bearing punishment out of proportion to their conduct because the association, in the mind of the public, with much more egregious conduct of others.

The age of consent in the United States varies from 16 to 18, but it is 18 in several major states, including California, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Virginia. In Texas it is 17. In Canada and in many European countries it is 16; in Yemen it is as low as 9 but the person must be married. Some states have “Romeo and Juliet” laws mandating lesser penalties when the older partner is only slightly older than the minor.

Earlier societies (such as that of Shakespeare's own "Romeo and Juliet") have encouraged men and women to marry and start families shortly after they were biologically capable of doing so. Our society, with its long adolescence for education and preparation, has developed very different values and encourages waiting until later for family function, and therefore has developed later ages of consent. Recent studies show that the brain is not fully developed biologically until the mid twenties.

The show focused on several issues, the biggest of which was the prosecution of older teens (usually boys) for relations with girls slightly younger than legal age, with the result that they are on registries for life, and lumped with people who have committed violent offenses against minors. The show explored whether society has a double standard with respect to gender. The law does not, but culture does.

The basic link is this. Also, the basic "20/20" link today (March 14 2008) has a video link that appears to rebroadcast the program. The AoC link leads to many sublinks with very detailed stories covering what was explained in the program. The material was quite disturbing. The visitor is encouraged to study all the links in detail. Stossel says that 20/20 is seeking more life stories of unjust prosecutions or threats of prosecutions. Stossel also appeared on Barbara Walters 's "The View" today and explained the program tonight.

The increased prosecutions started in the 1990s with Jessica’s Law and Megan’s Law.

The “moral” problem seems to be the punishment of people for almost “natural” teen behavior for crimes committed by much older and violent people. Some prosecutors defended the laws and the lifetime pariah status as a necessary deterrent. Some religious observers seemed to want to use the laws to reinforce the idea that sex is only for marriage.

Stossel also discussed the hypocrisy of some fallen politicians: Spitzer, Larry Craig, and Mark Foley. They indeed fell on their own swords. Oddly, he didn't cover the case or Genarlow Wilson in Georgia (details here).

The previously very useful website no longer exists. It used to list the age of consent by country and by state within the United States, with separate columns for homosexuals (invalidated by Lawrence v. Texas in 2003). The program did not discuss Ohio's civil registry, which does not require conviction, but has apparently been used on only one person.

Compare this presentation with a panicky one on “Dr. Phil Now” on Friday March 7, 2008, link here.

There is a professional law office blog on federal s.o. treatment programs, and it makes for rather sobering reading, here. It mentions the Butner Program, and for inmates it is psychologically and physically quite intrusive, with measurements of progress by plethysmographs.

Visitors will also want to view my blogger entry on the Sept 7 20/20 on Brian Ross ‘s investigation of the notorious NBC Dateline series, here.

It's also fitting (maybe just a coincidence) that on the next day after this broadcast, the Metropolitan Opera performed Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, which, symbolically at least, deals with vigilantism and mob rule against "different" men suspected of these crimes (after tragedy). Link to the review here.

Visitors may want to check out an organization that calls for legal reform in this area.

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