D.C. City Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), after hectic day-long negotiations with his council colleagues and with Mayor Marion Barry, last night announced that the officials were close up to a compromise on a proposed sexual assault law that would keep the age of consent for sexual relations at 16.
Under the terms of the compromise that Clarke proposed, criminal penalties could be imposed for having sex with any child -- male or female. The penalty for having sex with a child 12 years old or younger would be 20 years in prison, while the penalty would be 10 years in prison if the child was 13 up to 16.
The compromise amendment proposes that anyone under 16 years old who has sex with another person under 16 -- and if the two are within two years in age -- be subject to a criminal charge punishable by "non-incarcerative" penalties such as probation or protective supervision.
Clarke said that his proposed amendment was supported by the mayor, but that the final language had not been reviewed by his council colleagues as of early last night.
"The conversations will continue through the night," Clarke said. "We're going to consider coming to a common ground."
The flurry of negotiatins were over a Clarke-sponsored proposal that would have removed criminal penalties for sexual relations between consenting children aged 12 and older, provided one partner was not more than four years older than the other. But some D.C. residents and community and church leders vehemently protested the proposal which they contended was tantamount to a stamp of approval by the council on youthful sexual activity.
The age of consent issue is part of a sweeping reform of the sexual assault laws that was approved unanimously by Clarke's Judiciary Committee on June 3 and scheduled for full council consideration today.
Currently, sex with any female under 16 years old is considered statutory rape, even if the girl consents. Therefore, anytime two teenagers under 16 have sex, the boy is guilty of carnal knowledge, a crime punishable by up to life in prison.
The total bill undre consideration today is generally aimed at broadening criminal penalties for sexual assault and diminishing penalties for sex between consenting parties.
In addition to legalizing sexual relations between consenting children 12 and older, the bill also proposed removing penalties for sex between children undre 12, as long as the children were no more than two years apart in age.
The movement towards a compromise accelerated yesterday morning, when council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At-Large), a supporter of the original provision relating to 12-year-olds, began circulating a proposed amendment that would restore the current age of consent to 16, and would make that age apply to males as well as to females.
Kane also proposed shortening the penalty for violating the statutory rape law, from life in prison to a maximu of 20 years.
In proposing the change, Kane said that the recent public outcry "has made it very clear that what the bill originally proposed is out of touch with the moral instincts and social desires of the community."
At noon, Council Chairman Arrington L. Dixon, an opponent of changing the current age of consent, said he would back Kane's amendment. In a press conference, Dixon said, "We do not want to send a signal to the community and to the young people that sexual activity under the age of 16 is encouraged."
Dixon, who said his office received about 50 calls from persons protesting the change in the age of consent, said, "We need to send a very hard-line signal to the young people that this is not the kind of behavior that will be sanctioned by the government."
He said that "any move to lower it [the age of consent] will be viewed as liberalization and the public doesn't want it liberalized. . . . When you start fooling around with sex and religion, you get a lot of public reaction."
Soon after Dixon's statement, Clarke said he was ready to compromise, issuing a press release stating that because of "the confusion over the matter" he was ready to introduce amendments to keep sexual activity with and between juveniles illegal.
Clarke said in the press release that the part of his sexual assault bill that would effectively nullify the statutory rape law "has been made to appear an attempt to license sexual acts by the young people of the city."
"We're all trying to find a way to assure the public that we are discouraging teen-age sexual activity," Clarke said last night as he announced his latest compromise proposal. He added, "We're trying to find a way to ensure that juvenile sexual conduct with each other is unlawful . . . but that they not be subject to incarceration."
If the sexual assault law is approved today, it will come up for a second final council vote on July 14.