Every U.S. jurisdiction has passed criminal laws that are intended to protect children and teenagers from sexual predators. These laws define an age of consent, where it is a criminal offense to have sexual relations with a minor who has not yet reached that age. The conception of statutory rape arises from age of consent laws, as a minor below the age of consent is presumed as a matter of law legally incompetent to consent to sexual conduct. Statutory rape laws typically apply broad definitions of sexual conduct that extend to any sexual conduct involving contact with the genitals of either or both participants. Many states impose more serious penalties for the commission of sexual acts with younger minors and teens, with reduced penalties for sexual conduct with older teens. However, in most states statutory rape is prosecuted as a felony carrying a potential prison term, and a conviction may require the convicted defendant to register as a sex offender for many years, perhaps even for life.
Sometimes these laws result in outcomes that strike people as unjust or unfair. Most often, that perception arises when two young people who are close in age engage in consensual sexual conduct, yet one ends up facing felony charges. One outcome that can result from traditional statutory rape laws is for a minor to be able to legally engage in sexual conduct with another minor, but for that conduct to become a felony the moment the older minor reaches the age of eighteen. In some states it is possible for both young people to be charged with statutory rape, based upon their both being under the age of consent. Romeo and Juliet laws, named after Shakespeare's famously star-crossed lovers, attempt to avoid unjust outcomes by reducing or eliminating the penalties for statutory rape when two young people are close in age.
In some contexts a Romeo and Juliet law will make the sexual conduct non-criminal but, particularly for age differences of three to four years, the law may instead reduce the penalty faced by the older teen. Romeo and Juliet laws often still impose a minimum age below which sexual contact with a child or young teen remains criminal, no matter how close in age the other person. Some states also have a maximum age for their laws, for example, providing that a person over the age of twenty-one cannot rely upon a Romeo and Juliet law to avoid prosecution for sexual conduct with a minor below the age of consent.
Another form of Romeo and Juliet law applies to sex offender registration, allowing people who were convicted of statutory rape involving a young person who was close to them in age to petition to be excused from the requirement of registering as sex offenders. These laws restrict eligibility, for example, by requiring that the defendant have no more than one conviction of a sex offense involving a minor, requiring that there have been no violence or coercion involved in the offense, and allowing the defendant to be excused from reporting only if that outcome is consistent with federal law, specifically the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), a law passed by Congress in an effort to make sex offender registration requirements more consistent across the nation.