A bill that lowers the age of consent for sexual relations between teens has passed both houses of the Idaho Legislature, after members of the House of Representatives voted 54-14 to approve the measure Friday.
The legislation has already received approval from the Senate and now heads to the desk of Gov. Butch Otter.
The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, who said that while he does not condone premarital relations, he also is not favorable to inequities in law. Shirley told lawmakers that the bill would prevent young men who participate in sexual relations with a willing female partner, to not be forever marked as a sex offender and classified with those who use force or coercion to perpetrate rape, an act which he called "one of the most terrible crimes of all."
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, R-Ketchum, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said that the bill would remove discretion from the hands of local prosecutors, which she sees as a good thing. She said that prosecutors, publicly elected, sometimes charge boys with statutory rape because of the pressure of a local community, even though that prosecutor wouldn't have otherwise brought the charges.
The legislation would not give teens or young adults free reign in the realm of sexual relations, but would put some age restrictions on them. The bill allows teens 16- and 17-years of age to have relations with someone up to three years of age older with no consequences. Anyone having sex with a youth under the age of 16 would likely be charged with lewd and lascivious conduct. The bill would not affect state law on forcible or coerced rape, which would remain a felony-level charge.
For some legislators, the legislation serves as a way to create fairness and equality between the sexes. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said that the current laws regarding statutory rape are unfair because of the additional weight that is added to the shoulders of males. Burgoyne told lawmakers that he feels that the current law comes from a "different era" and that it "violates the spirit of equal protection."
Burgoyne laid out several scenarios which, he felt, proved the current law to be unjust. He pointed out a reverse of the current topic, in which a 20-year-old woman has sex with a 17-year-old boy, for which she would receive no punishment. He also told lawmakers that a young man who turns 18 and has sex with his girlfriend who turns 18 the next day is guilty of a crime, while the female would not be charged.
"This law is extraordinarily unjust," said Burgoyne.
Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenn Ferry, a former law enforcement officer, said that during his time as an officer, he was involved in cases of statutory rape and had even brought charges of it himself. He told lawmakers that those situations are difficult to deal with and often have "no winners" at their conclusion. But Wills, like Burgoyne, felt something needed to be done to right a legislative wrong.
"This is unbalanced scales of justice," said Wills. "I think it’s time we tip the scales in the right way."
For other lawmakers, Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, and Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, the bill doesn't go far enough in protecting the interests of the young women involved. Block and Wood both urged lawmakers to hold the bill so stakeholders could work out compromises on language. Wood said that the bill fails to keep young men from leaving young women after they find out they are pregnant. Both lawmakers expressed concern that under the provisions of the bill, it would be easier for men to not provide any financial or emotion support to the women or babies.
"It sends the message the young men should have no responsibility in this world," said Block.