When an adult man has sex with a 14-year-old girl, there needs to be some sort of legal sanction on his behavior – even if she misrepresented her age and he believed she was 17 years old. We have age of consent laws for a reason, the primary one being to protect young teenagers from being sexually exploited by adults. But in seeking to combat these crimes, we should not do the legal equivalent of killing a spider with a twenty pound sledgehammer.
This brings me to a case I mentioned on Twitter, of an adult man who is facing harsh legal sanctions for “hooking up” with a 14-year-year-old girl. Specifically, he will now spend the rest of his life on the sex offender registry, is prohibited from using the internet (thus obliterating his career in information technology) and will face harsh restrictions on where he can live and work. Is this really the best way to solve this problem?
First, we need to be very specific about the words we use. Zachery Anderson is 19 years old, but it is misleading to call him a “teenager.” It would be more truthful to refer to him as an adult man (as I did above) because that is exactly what he is. Anderson could fight, kill and die in a war for at least a full year before he committed the crime. It is especially important when the girl he had sex with is 14 years old, two years under the age of consent. In describing Anderson as a “teenager,” the New York Times biases the coverage of the case in a manner that is almost certainly intentional.
But while some criminal sanction is appropriate, this particular punishment – forcing him to register as a sex offender and severely limiting where he can live and work – is an extreme and unnecessary solution. Anderson is not a sexual predator or a pedophile. He is not a threat to society or to abuse others in the future. If we are serious about helping people like him re-integrate into society, become productive citizens and not be in and out of the justice system, then this level of punishment should be illegal in situations like this.
I understand, appreciate and sympathize with the judge’s moral revulsion to what Anderson did. That should not be what drives the punishment in this case, however. This case shows we need to reform how we deal with sex offenders.