By RUTH BERRY political reporter
Teenagers who have consensual sex between the age of 14 and 16 face longer maximum jail terms - of up to 10 years - following the Government's decision to drop the proposed similar-age defence.
The new maximum jail term will be three years longer than it is under current laws.
Youth in this age group don't have too much to worry about, however, as police are informed of very few such cases and seldom prosecute when they are.
While 12- to 14-year-olds are technically covered as well, they are too young to be convicted of a sexual offence and sent to jail.
Instead they could be sent to the Family Court, where various orders can be made against them.
Justice Minister Phil Goff told Parliament yesterday he had informed the law and order select committee he was dropping a controversial clause following a public outcry.
It would have enabled 12- to 16-year-olds who had consensual sex when the age gap between the couple was less than two years to escape prosecution by mounting a similar-age defence.
The issue was considered as part of a wider review of the Crimes Act.
The Crimes Amendment Bill (No 2) aims to rectify gender discrimination in the act that meant females could not be prosecuted for sexual offending.
It also introduces stiffer penalties for predatory sexual offending against underage young people, increasing the maximum jail term from seven to 10 years.
Sex between consenting teenagers is included in this section of the act and, as a result of Mr Goff's decision to drop the proposed similar-age defence, the harsher penalty will apply.
Under the existing act an accused teenage boy could mount a defence if he was the younger of the pair. Once the bill is passed all young people - including girls - will be able to be prosecuted and it will be irrelevant who is younger.
Mr Goff has said the Government's challenge was to draft legislation reflecting the fact that underage sex was not condoned, but which did not end up applying tough sanctions aimed at predators to youth who were experimenting sexually.
But his office has confirmed the tougher penalty would now apply.
National MP Tony Ryall said he had not considered whether the 10-year penalty should apply to consenting teenagers.
But he believed the select committee should examine the issue in the wake of the withdrawal of the similar-age defence.
Police national youth aid co-ordinator Inspector Chris Graveson said yesterday children aged 10 to 14 could not be convicted of a criminal offence unless they had committed manslaughter or murder.
Instead they were dealt with by the Family Court, which could make orders.
After nine years in the job he struggled to remember cases of consensual sex between under-16s reported to the police.
If they were lodged the police, under the act, were obliged to first consider other options, such as family group conferences.