Why Are Teens Being Punished With Decades on a Sex Offender Registry for Consensual Sex?

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Commentary Violence

Why Are Teens Being Punished With Decades on a Sex Offender Registry for Consensual Sex?

Martha Kempner

A Michigan judge threw the book at 19-year-old Zachery Anderson after he admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old girl who claimed to be 17 at the time. This case show us how laws meant to protect children from predators can be used to punish teens for having consensual sex.

On Wednesday, a Michigan judge agreed to consider a request by 19-year-old Zachery Anderson to change the harsh sentence handed down by a different judge in April. Despite a state law that allowed for leniency and pleas from both parties involved, the original judge threw the book at Anderson after he admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old girl who claimed to be 17 at the time, a year over the age of consent in Michigan. That judge’s sentence, which included 90 days in county jail, five years on probation, and 25 years on the sex offender registry, came with an in-court lecture about using the Internet to “troll for women.” This case show us how laws meant to protect children from predators can be used to punish teens for having consensual sex.

It all started, according to the New York Times, when Anderson met the unnamed girl on Facebook’s “Hot or Not” app, which is intended for an audience that is 18 and over. The two began chatting online and texting, and she told him she was 17 years old—an account she stands behind. When they decided to meet in person, Anderson drove from his home in Indiana to hers in Michigan. The girl, who has epilepsy, did not tell her mother where she was going. The couple went to a nearby school where they talked and then had sex. No one is suggesting the sex was forced or coerced.

The girl, however, was gone longer than expected and her mother became concerned because she did not have her medicine with her. Fearing that the girl had had an epileptic seizure, the mother called the police who were waiting at the house when the couple came home.

Anderson was ultimately arrested and, on the advice of his lawyer, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, which is a high-court misdemeanor in Michigan. His lawyer believed he was a prime candidate for Michigan’s Holmes Youthful Trainee Act. The law, which was originally passed in 1966, is designed to offer lighter sentences to first-time offenders who are between the ages of 17 and 21. If they plead guilty, they can be designated as a “youthful trainee” and avoid having conviction on their record. This would have been particularly important in Anderson’s case because a recent change in Michigan law means that the fourth-degree offense to which he pleaded guilty can never be expunged from his record.

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At the sentencing hearing, both the girl, now 15, and her mother pleaded with the judge to be lenient with Anderson. The mother said, “I hope you’ll really consider the fact of just dropping the case.” The girl, too, asked the judge for to go easy, saying “nothing should happen to Zach.”

But the judge did not drop the case. Instead, he handed down a harsh punishment. In addition to his 90 days in jail, five years on probation, and 25 years on the sex offender registry, Anderson was prohibited from using a computer or smart phone during his probation. On the day he was sentenced, Anderson was two weeks from finishing a semester at Ivy Tech, a community college in Indiana, where he was taking computer classes on scholarship. Yet, the judge didn’t reconsider or postpone the ban on computers until Anderson had finished school.

That might be because the judge seems to consider computers to be a main part of the problem. When handing down his sentence, the judge added this lecture:

The Internet’s wonderful, thank you, Al Gore. But it also is a danger. You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women to meet and have sex with. That seems to be part of our culture now: meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this, whatsoever.

But is it totally inappropriate for a 19-year-old to use the Internet to look for sexual partners?

If he were actually looking for underage partners or trying to coerce women into having sex with him, of course that would be inappropriate. But no one in this case, including the girl involved, claims he was doing that. She admits to having lied about her age, and it does not seem unreasonable for someone who is 19 to have a sexual relationship with someone who is 17.

To be sure, we do have to remain vigilant for cases in which young teens are being exploited or coerced by older partners, or for instances where perpetrators claim to be ignorant of someone’s age in order to get away with abuse. But this case exemplifies many of the things that can be wrong with our age of consent laws, including the haphazard way in which they are applied and the fact that they can be used to punish consensual teenage sex.

As Rewire has reported in the past, statutory rape laws are rarely enforced at the behest of the young people involved because most often, neither consider themselves a victim. Instead, the cases are brought forth when law enforcement officials become aware of the situation because one partner is already in trouble with the law or because a girl becomes pregnant. An opinion in the American Bar Association Journal explained it this way:

Unable to prosecute the whole country, law enforcement officials apply the law principally against two groups: men, frequently older, who have sex with girls from “good homes;” and minority men, who are punished if they commit the crime of having sex with white women or impregnate women of color under circumstances that add to the welfare rolls.

Upset parents may also start the legal ball rolling in these cases, which can lead to disproportionate enforcement of the law based on their disapproval of certain relationships.

In Anderson’s case, the involvement of law enforcement was essentially a fluke. Her mother called the police not because she was worried her daughter was out having sex with an older boy, but because she was concerned about her daughter’s health. Had the police not been there to witness the drop-off, it’s unlikely there would even be a case as neither the mother nor daughter wished for him to be punished.

But the police were there, and the case ended up in front of a judge who clearly does not approve of sexual relationships among teens, or at least of those that are initiated on the Internet. Regardless of his opinions, though, most 19-year-olds have had sex, and 17—the age that the girl claimed to be—is the average age of first sex in this country.

The role of adults should not be to punish teenagers for having consensual sex. It should be to teach them how to think critically so that they can make responsible decisions, understand the role of consent, and stay safe. We don’t know all of the details of the sexual liaison in question, but what we do know suggests some lapses in judgment. Driving to another state to meet a stranger could be considered to be neither safe nor responsible. Getting in a car with someone you’ve only met online is not safe. Lying about your age to a sexual partner is not responsible. And, having sex (presumably in a car) at a local school is, again, neither safe nor responsible.

But the consensual encounter should not have landed a young man on the sex offender registry for much of his adult life, which can make it difficult for him to find basics such as housing and employment. For example, his parents were having trouble finding him a place to live after he was released from jail earlier this summer because registered sex offenders cannot live less than 1,000 feet from a park. Their own house is less than that distance from a public boat launch, considered a public park. The registry was designed to protect kids against sexual predators by warning communities that someone previously convicted of such a crime was in their midst. Nothing about this case suggests that Zachery Anderson is a sexual predator or that any community will be safer by knowing he’s there or preventing him from getting too close to children.

Anderson was released from jail earlier this summer after serving 73 days of his 90-day sentence. On Wednesday, he appeared before a new judge and formally withdrew his guilty plea. The judge said he would consider the request for a new sentence.