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Taubman Center for Public Policy
Study Evaluates Criminal Justice Handling of Statutory Rape Cases
A study of all statutory rape cases brought before Rhode Island Superior Court from 1985 through 2002 finds evidence of significant leniency. The study, conducted at Brown’s Taubman Center for Public Policy by Ross Cheit, Laura Braslow and Veena Srinivasa, makes recommendations to improve the performance of the criminal justice system in cases of statutory rape.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A new study of statutory rape cases in Rhode Island finds significant evidence of leniency in the criminal justice system and makes recommendations for amending statutes, revising sentencing procedures, and increasing public education about sexual assault and statutory rape, especially among teen-agers.
“The enforcement of statutory rape laws – too lenient? too severe? – has been a subject of vigorous debate in recent years,” said Ross Cheit, associate professor of public policy at Brown and lead author of the study. “The debate has been passionate but driven largely by anecdote and ideology, not data. We wanted to assemble the facts of the matter.”
Statutory rape laws forbid sexual relations between adults and teen-agers who are older than the age at which they are considered children by child molestation statutes (usually 13) but younger than the age of consent (usually 16). Laws in all 50 states recognize that young teen-agers are not legally able to consent to sexual relations, although the age of consent varies from 14 to 18. The age of consent is 16 in Rhode Island.
Cheit and two former students – coauthor Laura Braslow, now a graduate student in public administration at New York University, and Veena Srinivasa, who recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Prague – drew data for their study from three sources. First, they examined all 403 Rhode Island Superior Court cases in which statutory rape was charged from 1985 through 2002. Second, they prepared a contextual sample of 158 of those cases, from 1997 through 2002, for which they examined court files and police reports. Third, they examined electronic records in substantiated cases of sexual abuse involving hospital visits by 14- and 15-year-olds.
There are two opposing arguments, Cheit said. One holds that statutory rape laws are too strictly enforced, that they “criminalize young love,” and that they are not in accord with changes in social and sexual mores. The other holds that statutory rape laws should be more strictly enforced because sexual contact with older adults can be mentally and physically damaging to young adolescents. In 1997, Congress also urged stricter enforcement as a way to reduce the frequency of teen-age pregnancy.
Among the study’s principal findings:
The study recommends changes that would improve the performance of the criminal justice system with regard to charges of statutory rape:
The authors call for additional studies of issues surrounding statutory rape, including the way in which complaints are handled and outcomes are tracked. Analysis of statutes is not likely to be sufficient, they say, because actual enforcement varies. States that allow for severe penalties, for example, may have lenient sentencing patterns.
“Statutory rape is difficult to study because it is often intertwined with other types of sexual assaults. Many cases that do not fit the intent of the statute are charged as statutory rape, and the majority of situations the law should cover never end up in court,” said Braslow, the study’s co-author. “We need to study how these cases progress from commission of the crime to eventual disposition in order to understand whether the statutory rape law is doing what it’s supposed to do – and if not, why not.”
The report, Statutory Rape: A Study of Rhode Island Superior Court Cases, 1985 to 2002, is available in pdf form online at www.brown.edu/PublicPolicy/statutoryrape.pdf and in print through the Taubman Center. A longer version with multiple regression analysis will be published next year as “Statutory Rape: An Empirical Examination of Claims of ‘Over-reaction’” in A Handbook of Children, Culture and Violence (Sage, 2006), edited by N. Dowd, D. Singer and R. Wilson.