Alaska House panel removes proposal to raise the state’s age of sexual consent to 18

By: James Brooks, Alaska Beacon

Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, turns to listen to a proposed amendment to the state budget on Monday, April 3, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska House’s Rules Committee has eliminated, at least temporarily, a plan to raise the state’s age of sexual consent to 18. Members of the House said on Tuesday that they expect to revote on the idea before the legislative session ends.

Meeting on Monday, members of the committee voted unanimously to remove the section of House Bill 264 that contained the sexual-consent language. 

During a House floor session in late March, Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, proposed a handwritten amendment to HB 264 that would make it a felony for someone older than 18 to have sex with someone younger than 18, with some exceptions. 

That amendment passed 32-6 even as some lawmakers criticized the amendment’s language as inadequate. Gray said he would have preferred a longer, formally drafted amendment, but that wasn’t available at the time of the vote, and lawmakers passed the idea while acknowledging that the Senate would have to fix some problems with the proposal.

But instead of advancing HB 264 to a final vote and on to the Senate, House leaders returned the bill to the House Rules Committee for several weeks.

Speaking Tuesday, Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer and the sponsor of HB 264, said Gray’s amendment was “incomplete and only dealt with one small aspect (of the age of consent) and did not reflect … the full intent by the sponsor.”

Vance, who voted against Gray’s idea on the floor, said she personally believes the age of consent issue needs to be examined “holistically,” with attention to the legal age of marriage as well. In 2022, legislators passed a law banning marriages involving children younger than 16; Vance voted for the bill.

Vance said HB 264 is intended only to require the state’s Department of Family, Community and Children’s Services to screen eligible children for victimization and sexual abuse, trafficking and exploitation, something that is already being done but isn’t required by state law. 

That issue doesn’t touch on criminal law like Gray’s amendment, which has “large criminal implications,” Vance said.

House Rules Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said he supports the idea behind Gray’s amendment, “which I think at this point, everyone realized was … flawed.”

He said he expects a new version of the amendment to be unveiled when HB 264 returns to the House floor, and Gray said he does have a new eight-page amendment ready for lawmakers’ attention.

As described by Gray, the new version sets the age of consent at 18, with exemptions if the two people having sex are within four years — down to the day — of each other. 

Someone as young as 13 could legally have sex with someone no older than 17; someone who is 21 could legally have sex with someone as young as 17. 

The new amendment also clarifies that it doesn’t affect sex between two people who are married.

“The age of marriage in Alaska is 16,” he said. “If someone is 16, and they’re married to somebody much older, this does not affect them. People can have sex as spouses, they can have sex with their husband, even if they’re 16.”

Gray said he wasn’t surprised by the rules committee’s action, because he knew Vance was uncomfortable with the change.

“I look forward to the opportunity of bringing the full change to the age of consent, as drafted by legislative lawyers correctly, to the floor to get the real version passed,” he said.

Gray said he doesn’t know whether House lawmakers will support the new version, but he hopes they will.

“Thirty-two people voted for the handwritten version of the amendment. So I believe, if they supported that, why wouldn’t they support the correct, legally drafted version on the floor?” he said.