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Underage teenager faces life as registered sex offender for having sex with underage girlfriend

Harris County Courthouse
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Underage teenager faces life as registered sex offender for having sex with underage girlfriend

A 14-year-old Houston teenager may be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life after he was charged with having sex with his 12-year-old girlfriend.

The seventh grader, whose name has not been revealed, has been charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child. His girlfriend is in the sixth grade, the Houston Chronicle said.

“He had consensual sex with his little girlfriend and he loved her. They were boyfriend-girlfriend,” the teen’s mother said.

Texas law has the “Romeo and Juliet” exception, which means that having sex with a juvenile under the age of consent is not illegal, if you’re less than three years older than the person who is under the age of consent.

But that law only applies if both sexual partners are at least 14. If you’re 13 or younger, the Romeo and Juliet exception isn’t valid.

“The idea that a 14-year-old who has sex with a person just a little bit younger than him or her would be treated as the worst of the worst in our society and placed on the sex offender registry is really sick,” said the teenager’s attorney, Joseph Gutheinz. “If he has sex with someone who is younger by just days but is still 13 years old, he could be charged with one of the most serious offenses we have. It just blows my mind.”

The arrest occurred in May but Gutheinz confirmed to In Justice Today that the case was still pending. He expressed frustration that the case had not been resolved.

“This is a good kid,” Gutheinz said. “He shouldn’t have to go through this.”

Gutheinz told In Justice Today that children in this situation have no idea they’re committing a crime until after the fact.

“These kids don’t understand the law,” he said. “They’re only really worried about mom and dad finding out.”

Gutheinz said he was seeking to resolve the case in a way that ensured that the teenager would not have to be a registered sex offender.

The office of Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has not commented on the case.

Jackie Stewart Gravois, an attorney with the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, told the Houston Chronicle that judges don’t usually make juveniles register as sex offenders in cases like this. Judges have the final say in whether someone will be a registered sex offenders.

“Very rarely do the juvenile judges in Harris County force anyone to register,” she said. “They usually delay it and send them to sex offender treatment and then make a decision.”

But Ira Ellman, a professor at the UC–Berkeley School of Law, told In Justice Today it’s not unusual to see 14-year-olds charged as sex offenders and facing life on the sex offender registry.

Some reports, including one from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, have found that the age with the highest number of people arrested for a sex offense is 14, Ellman said.

The Marshall Project recently reported that more than 800,000 people were on sex offender registry lists nationwide.

“And contrary to popular belief, violent serial pedophiles do not fill the ranks of the registered,” wrote David Feige, who did the report. “Rather, a wide swath of sexual thoughts and actions can lead to the lifetime of stigmatization that being on the sex offender registry entails.”

Thanks to Jake Sussman and Josie Duffy Rice.

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