Some younger teenagers who have sex would no longer be breaking Kansas law under a bill that supporters say is needed to change "draconian" penalties that they contend make children into felons.
One opponent fears the bill goes too far in loosening penalties for young adults who have sex with teens, however.
Kansas prohibits sex with anyone younger than 16, even if both people are the same age. A proposal before a House committee would decriminalize sex among teens who are under 16 but close in age.
For example, sexual intercourse between a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old is considered a felony under current law. The bill would change that.
"I request that you change the laws to stop the prosecution of our children for the crime of entering adolescence, for the crime of being sexually curious, for the crime of discovering their sexuality, for the crime of normal childhood development," Randy Masten, a Lawrence parent whose 14-year-old son was criminally charged, told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Masten’s son was charged with aggravated indecent liberties with a child, a felony, after his son and a 13-year-old girl kissed and touched each other in a school elevator for about five minutes, he said.
After the encounter came to light, he was contacted by a police officer who was investigating. Nearly a year later, in January 2017, Masten’s son was charged. The charges were later dropped. Masten said he spent nearly $13,000 on an attorney and never found out why the case went away.
He said his son and the girl were 55 days apart in age.
"What if we did not have the means to defend our son? An overzealous DA and judicial system, following the letter of the law as it stands, could have destroyed my son’s life and wrecked the lives of my wife and myself as well," Masten said.
Masten’s son’s conduct wouldn’t be criminal under House Bill 2738.
Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat who proposed the legislation, said the bill attempts to correct "draconian penalties under current law for voluntary sexual contact between minors." The bill removes criminal penalties for contact between minors who are within a year of the same age and imposes graduated penalties in other cases, based on the age difference between the individuals.
The legislation would remove sexual contact between children ages 11 and 14 from any criminal penalties "on the reasoning that children of these ages are together in junior high school, and any sexual experimentation between them would be much better handled by parents, teachers and counselors than by the juvenile justice system," Highberger said.
No one spoke in opposition during a hearing on the bill.
But Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said he is "heartily disappointed" in the legislation. He said he isn’t sure lawmakers should lower penalties for relations between young adults and young teens.
Under current law, sex between an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old is a Level 3 felony, according to a chart provided by Highberger. The bill would make it a less-severe Level 8 felony.
"I’ll leave it to the will of the committee. I know how I will vote," Whitmer said.
He called Masten’s situation "tragic" and said that is a different story. But a four-year age difference?
"That’s where I drew the line. Two 14-year-olds is one thing. An 18-year-old and a 15-year-old, or a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old, that’s a little different," Whitmer said.
Kim Parker, with the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association, said the organization is neutral on the bill, but said it is an important one for lawmakers to consider.
"This is always something that I would say prosecutors have struggled with because of what you’ve heard today," Parker said, referring to Masten’s testimony. "Then again, on the other side of it, we also face very, very mad parents when someone becomes pregnant."
Rep. Leo Delperdang, R-Wichita, said he had friends in high school who impregnated girls when they were 15.
He added that he was speechless when he saw some of the felony-level penalties in current law.
"Do you screw up that child’s life, for the rest of their life, because two 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds, fondled each other consensually?" Delperdang said. "I have a problem with that."