Statutory Rape and Availability Bias in Virginia
By Bryan Caplan
My home state of Virginia does not have a Romeo and Juliet law. If an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old have consensual sex, the 18-year old is guilty of statutory rape. As a result, I can easily see parents of teenage boys in Virginia feeling great apprehension. Could their sons do hard time – and endure a lifetime stigma as a sex offender – for engaging in utterly normal adolescent behavior?
Legally, the answer seems to be yes. But what’s scary about bad laws is not that they exist, but how they’re enforced. There’s no point losing sleep over dead letters. So how often does Virginia actually punish youths for statutory rape? This official 2014 report report on crime in Virginia is most illuminating. Key facts:
1. For all of 2014, the total number of minors arrested for statutory rape in Virginia was: 6. Two were 16 years old; the rest were 17 years old.
2. For all of 2014, the total number of non-minors arrested for statutory rape in Virginia was: 104. Of these, 11 were 18 years old, 16 were 19 years old, and 26 were 20 years old. Arrests then sharply fall off.
3. 108 out of the 110 people arrested for statutory rape were male.
Is this number high or low? Well, Virginia has roughly 150,000 males aged 15-20. If you think that just 1% of them committed statutory rape under Virginia law, that’s only a 4% probability of even being arrested. I couldn’t find any statistics on prosecutions or convictions, but I’d be surprised if more than a quarter of arrests led to conviction. And if you think the prevalence of statutory rape is higher – say a violation rate of 5% for males aged 15-20 – that means a conviction risk of 0.2%.
Should Virginia have a Romeo and Juliet law? Sure. Are young men unjustly arrested and jailed? A few. But is the nightmare scenario a good reason to keep parents of young men awake at night? Not really. As the literature on availability bias teaches us, the human mind seriously overestimates the frequency of vivid events. While parents of teens face many challenges, they should never forget their most powerful ally in the fight against paranoia: numeracy.