The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, has upheld the wording of a bill that establishes prison sentences for adults convicted of having sex with a minor.
The bill, under consideration in the Legislative Assembly, would amend the country’s Penal Code. In Costa Rica today, sex between an adult and a person under 13 is considered rape, but sex between an adult and an adolescent over 13 years old is legal.
According to UNICEF, the minimum age of sexual consent in Latin America and the Caribbean ranges from 12 to 18 years old; the average age is 15, and the median is 16 years old.
Lawmakers approved the bill by a 40-3 margin in the first round of debate on Aug. 29. However, Libertarian Otto Guevara halted the process by securing the support of ten legislators for a consultation before the Sala IV.
Guevara said the bill violates the constitutional principle of equal treatment by establishing various age ranges for a crime. He has also criticized the proposal because of “the amount of money it will cost the government to prosecute and sanction offenders.”
Justices of the Sala IV disagreed, ruling that the current wording of Bill #19337 is not unconstitutional.
The Legislative Assembly must now wait for official notification of the ruling from the Sala IV before moving forward with the bill’s discussion. Legislators will then vote on the bill in a second and final round of debate.
If approved, the bill would take effect after President Luis Guillermo Solís signs it and it is published in the official government newspaper La Gaceta.
The initiative, known as the “Bill to Ban Improper Relationships,” proposes prison sentences of up to ten years for those found guilty of engaging in sexual relations with adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18.
Sentences would depend on the age difference between the adult and the adolescent. For example, prison time would range from three to six years when the adolescent is between the ages of 13-15 and the adult is five or more years older. In the case of an adolescent between 15-18 years old and an adult who is seven or more years older, however, the bill proposes two to three years in prison.
A sanction of four to ten years would apply when the adult is the minor’s family member, legal guardian or caregiver, or has a close relation with the adolescent or his or her family.
The justices of the Sala IV ruled in favor of these differentiations, noting that they are supported by research and by the recommendations of various United Nations agencies.
The bill also bans marriage between minors; between an adult and a minor; and between an adoptee and any member of his or her adoptive family.
Following the Sala IV ruling, Guevara reiterated that he will maintain his opposition to the initiative. The Libertarian said he still doesn’t see any technical criteria for the age gaps set in the bill.
“I stand by my opposition and I’ll vote against this bill,” he said on Wednesday evening.
Other legislators, such as Emilia Molina from the ruling Citizen Action Party (PAC), celebrated the decision.
“Today we take a firm step towards the protection of the innocence, health and future of our children and adolescents,” Molina said.
The Ombudsman’s Office also expressed its approval of the ruling. Ombudswoman Montserrat Solano said the bill is needed to ensure that the future of Costa Rican children is “full of opportunities and without the pressure of an unequal power relationship.”
Supporters say the initiative will reduce the sexual abuse of minors, teen pregnancies and school dropout rates.
The proposal amends various articles of the country’s Criminal Code, Family Code, Civil Code and also laws from the Supreme Elections Tribunal and the Civil Registry.