Say what? Child sex victims must prove they’re not wed to abuser? Scrub this law now
BY THE NEWS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL BOARD
FEBRUARY 17, 2021 10:30 AM,
UPDATED FEBRUARY 17, 2021 10:43 AM
Part of the job of a lawmaker is to be a law eraser. Washington legislators are sometimes asked to scrub anachronistic language from the statute books, not just because it’s embarrassing and offends our contemporary values, but because it can have damaging consequences today.
Consider laws from the early 1900s that condoned sex between adults and children as young as 10 years old, as long as they were married.
Believe it or not, this language has persisted for more than a century in state law, making Washington one of a handful of states still stuck in the dark ages. It’s a holdover from an era of underage brides, shotgun weddings and powerless children forced to grow up much faster than they should.
Sadly, the legacy of harm continues. Legislators this year are poised to end it.
You may ask: Isn’t marrying a child illegal in Washington now? Isn’t the age of consent 18 years old? Yes, but that’s not all that matters. The problem centers on uneven prosecution and sentencing of sex offenders, due to states having different legal standards of proof — including a grossly outdated standard in Washington.
According to prosecutors and child-welfare advocates, people convicted of sex crimes against children in other states can, and have, found safe harbor here. Experts say it’s difficult to use an out-of-state sex offense in a criminal history score, or as a multiplier in sentencing, if the other state’s conviction didn’t include the victim’s marital status as an element of proof. And most states, including neighboring Oregon, do not.
Now here comes the Washington Legislature, poised to officially do away with 19th-century thinking just in time for 2021.
A bill that passed the Senate Tuesday eliminates the requirement that the state prove the perpetrator was not married to the victim as an element of a sex crime involving a minor or vulnerable adult.
We’re happy to report the bill was approved unanimously. What took so long? A similar proposal passed the Senate last year but didn’t make it out of the House before time ran out.
In four words — “Rape is still rape” — a law enforcement representative effectively summed up the need for this legislation at a recent committee hearing. He also pointed out a maddening inconsistency.
“We do not allow marriage as a defense, or frankly as an immunity, from sexual assault for adult victims,” said James McMahan, policy director for Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, “but for some reason we still have this antiquated language in our child sexual offense statutes.”
Indeed, Washington got rid of the marriage exemption in adult rape cases in the 1980s.
If approved, Senate Bill 5177 would be the second stroke in a short time against sex offenders who prey on children and relocate to Washington. The first came in December, when the state Supreme Court reinstated a law requiring people to register as sex offenders here for any and all convictions in other states. The Legislature passed the law in 2010, but the state Court of Appeals threw it out in 2019; this allowed offenders who moved here to exploit Washington’s proof-of-nonmarriage loophole.
The result of the appeals court decision: Several repeat sexual abusers of children, often Oregon transplants, were treated as though they had no criminal history, said Nami Kim, senior prosecutor in King County’s sexual assault unit.
Legislators should now finish what Supreme Court justices started.
No sex-assault victim, certainly not a child, should have to go to court, take the stand and answer the preposterous question: “Are you married to your assailant?”
It’s way past time to erase this indignity from Washington law.