The announced pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears — the 16-year-old children’s television star and younger sister of beleaguered pop star Britney Spears — is casting new light on how states deal with the thorny issue of consensual sex among teens.
Spears, the star of Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” told OK! Magazine that she’s pregnant and that the father is her 18-year-old boyfriend.
There has been no public talk of criminal prosecution in the case. Consensual sex between the two may well have been legal, depending on where and when it took place.
But critics of the nation’s statutory rape laws say that laws that are ignored in some cases can be used to put other teens in prison and land them on sex-offender registries.
“You have a disturbing disparity in how these laws are enforced,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. “I have no problem at all with nailing adults who sleep with children, but I have a problem with the prosecution of teenagers in consensual relationships.
“What this case should focus the nation on is having a more evenhanded approach to these cases.”
In Louisiana, where Spears lives, it is a misdemeanor for someone age 17 to 19 to have consensual sex with someone age 15 to 17 if the difference between their ages is more than two years.
In California, where she sometimes tapes her television show, it’s a misdemeanor to have sex with someone younger than 18 if the offender is less than three years older. Someone more than three years older could be charged with a felony.
According to OK! Magazine, which first reported the news Tuesday, Spears said the father of her baby is longtime boyfriend Casey Aldridge.
Turley said most states have similar laws but rely on prosecutors to be selective in enforcing them. But that’s a recipe for legal problems, he said.
The issue drew international attention when a Georgia teen was sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.
In 2005, Genarlow Wilson was tried for the rape of a 17-year-old girl at a hotel-room party. While he was found not guilty of that charge, he was convicted of aggravated child molestation for the act with the 15-year-old — even though he was less than two years older.
Georgia law, which has since been changed, required a mandatory 10-year sentence on the charge of aggravated child molestation and required Wilson to register as a sex offender when he was released. Under the revised Georgia law, the act now would be a misdemeanor.
Now 21, Wilson was released from prison in October — after serving more than two years — when the state Supreme Court ruled his sentence was “grossly disproportionate to his crime.”
“The current laws leave too much to prosecutorial discretion,” Turley said. “We saw in the Wilson case how prosecutorial discretion can lead to grotesque results.”
He said statutory rape prosecutions of teens are more common in Southern states and small towns than they are elsewhere in the country or in big cities.
B.J. Bernstein, Wilson’s attorney, argued throughout his case that Wilson was imprisoned for an act that, while perhaps morally questionable, probably is going on among teens everywhere.
“If you prosecuted, even with misdemeanors, all those cases, you’d clog up the justice system with kids having sex,” she said. “It’s a social issue — and it may be something that parents don’t want to happen or wish wouldn’t happen at that age — but it shouldn’t be a crime.”
Spears, who turned 16 on April 4 and says she is 12 weeks into her pregnancy, told the magazine she plans to raise her child in Louisiana, “so it can have a normal family life.”
Nickelodeon released a statement saying the network respects Spears’ decision “to take responsibility in this sensitive and personal situation.”