Statutory rape prosecutions on the upswing |

Statutory rape prosecutions on the upswing

Rob Bhatt

After years of relaxed enforcement of California’s statutory rape laws, prosecutors statewide are cracking down on adult males having intimate relationships with underage females.

Among more than 6,000 cases referred to prosecutors statewide under the Governor’s Statutory Rape Vertical Prosecution Program are 54 in El Dorado County since last November.

Included during the nearly six months since prosecutor William Houle and investigator Dave Totten joined the district attorney’s staff are eight cases at Lake Tahoe resulting in misdemeanor or felony charges. Three of the defendants are already serving time in county jail following guilty pleas.

Although an offender can be sentenced to state prison for egregious violations of the law, to date, none of El Dorado County’s cases have resulted in such punishment.

“Our whole thrust is, we don’t necessarily want to send people to prison,” Houle said last week. “We want to get the word out that this is a crime that has created a social problem we are trying to alleviate.”

The social problem is teen pregnancies.

According to a study by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the annual cost, statewide, in federal and local assistance to teen-age mothers is $5 to $7 billion.

Then there are the social costs of teen pregnancy.

Due to enormous time commitments of parenting a child, many teen-age mothers do not graduate from high school or college and often lack competitive job skills, said Michael Carrington, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning.

OCJP in 1995 began targeting statutory rape following a California Health Services Department study determined 66 percent of California’s teen pregnancies involve adult fathers.

The vertical prosecution program provides state grants for an attorney and investigator to focus exclusively on statutory rape cases.

In January 1996, about $2.4 million in grants was split among the 16 counties that piloted the program. This year, the state has approved $8.4 million in grants to 53 of California’s 58 district attorneys’ offices.

“We hope this will serve as a deterrent (to statutory rape) when word gets out on the street,” Carrington said. “Prior to the initiation of this program, they (perpetrators) knew they could get away with this, and they could.”

The California Penal Code states makes sexual intercourse with a female under age 18 – unless a man’s spouse – unlawful.

Carrington blames growing caseloads and tightening budgets, statewide, for making statutory rape less of a priority for prosecutors than violent crime.

Another factor that makes it difficult to enforce the statutory rape law is reluctance among victims to testify against boyfriends they do not want to see get in trouble, experts say.

Carrington said vertical prosecutions – one attorney sticking with a case from beginning to end – have historically greater conviction rates than cases with more than one attorney making court appearances and and interviewing victims and witnesses.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s office estimates 70 percent of this county’s teen-age pregnancies are fathered by adult men.

Five of the eight defendants charged at Lake Tahoe allegedly conceived children with juvenile females.

In some of Houle’s cases, parents have alerted authorities to the suspected statutory rape of underage daughters.

In others, Health Department officials or other physicians have reported juvenile females impregnated by adult males.

Houle said the grant is not intended to crack down on relationships with small age differences between the participants, unless there is domestic abuse or other criminal violations involved.

He also said aggressive prosecutions are likely with repeat offenders, cases involving large age differences or cases where perpetrators seduce victims with drugs or alcohol.

Besides criminal prosecutions, a recently passed state law allows prosecutors to seek civil punishment against adult males who father children with juvenile females. And Houle said prosecutors can seek strict payment of child support as a term of probation for those convicted in statutory rape cases resulting in pregnancy.

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