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Distributed December 7, 2005
Contact Mark Nickel

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:

  • Almost 80 percent of defendants are at least four years older than their victims. The median age was 24, and the average age was almost 30. One-third of defendants were 30 years or older, at least twice the age of their victims.
  • Most defendants avoid prison entirely, although statutory rape is punishable by up to 5 years. Only 20.2 percent of persons who were originally charged only with statutory rape and then convicted were incarcerated. In cases where statutory rape was one of a number of charges, only 37 percent were incarcerated on statutory rape charges.
  • Few cases involve pregnancy. In the contextual sample of 158 cases from 1997 through 2002, only 5 percent of cases mentioned pregnancy and only one of those resulted in a prison sentence.
  • It’s not about “young love.” Cases of young defendants (18- and 19-year-olds) often included allegations of physical force and coercion, running contrary to ideas of “young love.”
  • Older defendants still receive relatively lenient sentences. Many older defendants avoid incarceration entirely. Those sentenced for statutory rape alone receive about half the maximum sentence on average (29.5 months as opposed to 5 years). Older defendants have a higher incarceration rate and receive longer sentences compared to younger defendants, however.

The study recommends changes that would improve the performance of the criminal justice system with regard to charges of statutory rape:

  • Take age differences more seriously. Current sentencing benchmarks make age difference between defendant and victim an important factor in assessing penalties, yet the examination of cases suggests that age makes less difference than it should. Delaware’s Sexual Predator Act imposes harsher penalties when the age difference is 10 years or more.
  • Take the victim-offender relationship into account. Sentencing benchmarks call for more severe sentences in cases of “aggravating circumstances.” Cases involving coercion, violence or other such factors should result in higher incarceration rates and longer sentences. A study of the 158-case contextual sample indicates this is not the case.
  • Reconsider the “force or coercion” standard. Rhode Island’s first-degree sexual assault law requires evidence of force or coercion – more than a lack of consent. Removing the force or coercion standard from first-degree sexual assault would keep more serious cases involving non-willing sex from being charged as statutory rape. The remaining cases would actually reflect the intent of the statutory rape law – to protect minor children who are legally unable to give consent, even if they are willing participants.
  • Focus on complaints of sexual abuse that that may or may not result in criminal charges. Clearly, many complaints fail to become criminal cases. Half of all states (Rhode Island is not among them) require both law enforcement and human services agencies to conduct initial investigations into complaints of child sexual abuse. Such a coordinated system, with perspectives inside and outside law enforcement, could result in better case tracking and could move more cases forward.
  • Increase public education. Sexual assault cases in general are vastly under-reported. Cases involving adolescents have additional personal, family, parental, and confidentiality issues that make public admission of sexual activity difficult. Many teens do not believe they can find justice, especially when issues of willing participation may be hazy. Public education might be the most effective way of addressing that issue.

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 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.


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