THE DISTRICT COUNCIL'S judiciary committee deserves high praise for its work on the D.C. Sexual Assault Reform Act of 1981. The bill, which will be voted on by the full council Tuesday, is the result of many hearings and tough debate over issues such as what the law is to do if two 15-year-olds are found having sexual intercourse. Is the boy guilty of statutory rape? Is the girl -- let's say the male is her boyfriend -- without any responsibility? These are difficult questions for any society to answer in its laws, and usually the questions have been poorly answered. Consequently, the legal remedies are ignored or simply used as an empty threat by authorites unless the girl's parents press the issue. Under current law, they can have the boy charged with statutory rape.
The current statutory rape law, a sweeping statute that prohibits sexual activity with a girl under 16 by anyone including a teen-age boyfriend, has been taken apart by the council's judiciary committee in an attempt to construct carefully a law that takes account of adolescent experimentation with sex, but firmly opposes the forcing of sexual activity on youngsters too immature to understand what is going on. Under the bill crafted by the judiciary committee -- principally by councilman David Clarke (D-Ward 1) -- sexual relations between two 15-year-olds would no longer be a legally punishable crime if it were not forced. This would be the case of sexual relations between any two people over the age of 12 as long as there were not more than four years' difference in their ages. If the children involved were under the age of 12, they could not be more than two years apart in age.
It is not the case that this change in the law is meant to encourage or endorse sexual activity among adolescents and children. Somehow, we don't quite imagine that the little people have been checking the law books up to now before giving their sexual curiosity free rein. What this law does accomplish is to make the law more reasonable on a very complicated social issue. And in a great improvement, the law makes it possible for the court to order supervision for a child who is having trouble with his budding sexuality without convicting the child of a crime. The new law would not remove all criminal penalties for sexual activity between adolescents and children.
The reformed sexual assault law also goes beyond the emotional child-sex question to engage other questions that the current law ignores, such as rape of a man; rape of a wife by her husband; intentionally intoxicating a person in order to have sexual relations with him or her, and certain other provisions. The revised law also lowers the penalty for forced rape from life to 20 years. The reason for that change, according to Mr. Clarke, is that juries are reluctant to convict a person of rape when the penalty is a life sentence but may be more likely to convict when the sentence is 20 years. The work that has been done is serious work that demands more than giggles or flashes of indignation. There may be arguments over shortening or increasing the number of years between the age of two teens so as to lessen the time when they can legally be involved with each other, but basically the reform act is good work that the city can be proud of.