For the past two years, Genarlow Wilson, 21, has been an inmate at a Georgia prison, where he could stay until 2015. His crime: engaging in oral sex at age 17 with a 15-year-old peer.
Until recently, Georgia law defined oral sex between teens as a felony if one person is under 16, regardless of the other person’s age. Thanks to the efforts of Genarlow Wilson’s lawyers, that law was amended last July, but Wilson is still incarcerated. At age 17 he engaged in oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s Eve party, where other teenagers, most of them students at the same high school, also had sex.
Somehow a videotape of the party got out. The police got hold of it and learned the ages of the teens involved, and six young Black men were charged with aggravated child molestation. Prosecutors offered them a plea deal with less prison time and the requirement that they permanently register as sex offenders, which five of the teenagers accepted. Refusing to be branded a child molester for life, Wilson was the only one who said he wasn’t guilty.
Few of us condone sex among teenagers, and certainly not in a group. But there’s a big difference between being a sexually active teen and being a child molester. Unfortunately, because of an absurd law in Georgia, Wilson, a college-bound star athlete with a 3.2 GPA, was sentenced to ten years in an adult prison. The young man had never been in trouble before. And the girl’s parents never filed a compaint. The irony: The law defines sexual intercourse between teenagers as a misdemeanor, so if he’d had intercourse instead of oral sex with the young woman, he would have received a lesser charge, one that didn’t include being labeled a child molester. Under the law, even an adult who engages in intercourse with a teen could receive a lighter sentence than Wilson’s.
Unless his conviction is overturned, it will follow Wilson for the rest of his life. Under Georgia law, he won’t be allowed to live in a house with his little sister. He will be part of a database that includes people who prey upon children. His status as a sex offender will come up when he seeks employment or tries to find a place to live.
Rather than acknowledging that this is not the intent of the law, prosecutors found it easier to criminalize certain teenagers. Everyone is afraid of being seen as “soft on crime.” And when people of color are affected by the unintended consequences of a law, officials are less likely to speak out.
We cannot stand by and allow the lives of promising young men like Genarlow to be forever destroyed. We should focus on locking up real criminals, not teenagers who indulge in sex. We must also educate young people about the consequences of their behavior. We have to be willing to stick by our children, especially in cases where the punishment so wildly outstrips the “crime.”
For more information about Genarlow’s case and to sign an online petition, check out wilsonappeal.com. Want to do more: Call Georgia’s governor, Sonny Perdue (404-656-1776) and ask that Genarlow be released.
David McDade, the district attorney in Wilson’s case, maintains the law has the last word. Learn about the juvenile sex laws in your state. Here are a few surprising statutes from around the country:
Alabama—A person 16 years or older engaging in intercourse with someone younger than 16 and older than 12 is guilty of second-degree rape.
Alaska—A person of any age who masturbates within the observation of a person who is under 16 is guilty of felony indecent exposure.
Kansas—Sex with someone under 16 is illegal, even when it involves a consensual partner age 16 or 17.
Virginia—An 18-year-old who has consensual sex with someone age 16 or 17 faces a misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.