The age gap for determining unlawful sexual conduct with teenagers may get more narrow.
For the second consecutive year, a lawmaker is proposing an amendment that makes it a crime for a person who is seven or more years older to engage in sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old. The law currently sets the age difference at 10 years or more. Depending on what type of conduct occurs, the offense is either a third-degree felony or class A misdemeanor.
The criminal justice interim committee signed off Wednesday on the change, proposed by Rep. Richard A. Greenwood, R-Roy. Greenwood's proposal, which was endorsed by the Utah PTA, received committee and House approval during the 2012 session but stalled in the Senate's rules committee.
A fiscal note attached to last session's version of the bill said that reducing the age gap would result in approximately $62,400 in increased court, incarceration and supervision costs in the first year and about $220,000 by fiscal year 2017. Analysts estimated an average of two additional offenders would be convicted yearly, paying criminal penalties of about $1,000 a year.
Lawmakers pulled the 10-year difference "out of the air" when they passed the law in 1998, said Greenwood, a retired Utah Highway Patrol officer.
"It sounded like a good number and there wasn't any history to go on," said Greenwood. But Utah is now among a minority of states setting the line at that age span. "Across the country, we're a little bit out of line. I think our age difference is a little bit too high."
Greenwood said many states use a seven-year age difference, while a few set it at five and some are even more narrow.
Arizona, for example, makes it a crime to engage in sexual conduct with someone between ages 15 and 18 when there is an age difference of two years or more. However, many states with statutes that set an age difference criteria use lower victim ages than does Utah.
"I don't see any way that this gap is a safety net for our kids. Ten years is just too much," Rod Layton, a former Weber County sheriff's deputy, told lawmakers earlier this year. Layton, who founded the Northern Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and now is director of the Weber/Morgan Children's Justice Center, said that is especially true, given the way predators are using the Internet and text messaging to entice and groom victims.
Since the law's adoption in 1998, there have been 595 convictions, according to state court records compiled by utahsright.com. Last year, nearly 40 people were convicted under the statute.
In addition to the 10-year age difference, Utah law currently states that sexual activity of any kind is illegal and nonconsensual if the victim is under age 14. And certain acts are illegal and nonconsensual if the victim is between ages 14 and 16.