May 15, 2017 - Telegraph Herald

Wisconsin proposal aims to lessen punishment for consensual teen sex


HAZEL GREEN, Wis. — A bipartisan proposal in the Wisconsin Legislature would reduce criminal penalties — including a requirement to register as sex offenders — for teens age 15 to 18 convicted of having consensual sex.

The measure has drawn support from at least one southwest Wisconsin lawmaker and an area law enforcement official. Others question why consensual sex between teens is illegal at all.

“I can understand this law, but being in high school I do know people who have consensual sex and it’s just like a norm,” said Julia Barnes, a junior at Southwestern High School in Hazel Green. “(Those relationships) are overlooked, pretty much.”

Current Wisconsin law makes it a felony for two people under the age of 18 to have sexual contact, regardless of consent.

State Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, and Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, have written legislation that creates a new misdemeanor crime of “underage sexual activity.” It would impact teens 15 to 18 who have sexual contact.

The bill also would give judges discretion to impose a sex offender registry requirement. Kessler, a former judge, said he’s not sure exactly how many current registrants were teens who had consensual sex, but he expects it’s fewer than 100.

More than 30 other states have made similar “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions, according to a legislative memo circulated last week seeking co-sponsorship.

“At present, our sexual assault statutes do not distinguish between cases involving sexual activity between teenagers and predatory behavior by older adults against children,” the memo said.

About 40 lawmakers, including Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, have sponsored the proposal. A staffer for Tranel said he was unavailable to provide comment for this story.

Katy Prange, chief of staff for Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said Marklein has yet to review the proposal and take a position.

The office of Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, did not respond to requests for comment.

Barnes and Emily Erschen, a senior at Southwestern High School, were surprised to hear it is a felony for two teens to have consensual sex.

“The only thing you hear is when someone’s over 18, but other than that it’s never talked about,” Barnes said.

Lafayette County Sheriff Reg Gill said it’s probably not a very well-known law. He said it “definitely” happens much more than what is reported to his department to investigate.

“Realistically, you don’t see very often it being reported where both people are underage,” he said.

Gill said he knows a man who was added to the sex offender registry for a consensual “Romeo and Juliet”-style relationship. The conviction “absolutely” can have a lasting impact on a person’s life, Gill said.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea by any means (to change the law),” he said.

Barnes and Erschen said there shouldn’t be any criminal penalties for teens who have consensual sex, especially when information is readily available about safe-sex practices. They noted teen sex is a reality of today’s society.

“You shouldn’t get punished for that, as long as you’re consenting,” Erschen said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.