"We firmly believe that kids are kids until they're 18," the author of the bill, State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery), said after the signing.
For years, prosecutors were limited to filing misdemeanor counts, such as corruption of minors, against adults who had sex with a child 16 or older. For example, in July 2011, James Civello, a squash coach at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, was charged with corruption of minors after having sex with a 16-year-old student. He was sentenced to a maximum of 23 months in jail.
In December 2011, during Harrisburg's review of child-protection laws, lawmakers amended the criminal code so school employees would be charged with a third-degree felony if they had sex with any student or player. That charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The same charge will now apply to coaches who work outside a school.
The law also has an unrelated amendment that will require a minimum prison sentence of 15 years for someone convicted of third-degree murder in the death of a child 13 or younger.
The author of the amendment, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), said in a news release it stemmed from the case against a doctor who assisted Kermit Gosnell at his abortion clinic in West Philadelphia. Steven Massof, who performed late-term abortions and killed infants born alive, was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison after he was convicted of third-degree murder. Scarnati said the sentence was appalling.
Pennsylvania has about eight third-degree murder convictions each year involving children younger than 13, according to authorities. The average sentence for cases involving children was unavailable, but the overall average was 151/2 to 40 years.
The Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association backed the amendment, with executive director Richard Long saying it would ensure appropriate sentences for a child's death while giving prosecutors leverage when offering a plea deal.
But James Swetz, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the law would do little but pander to voters, adding that current sentences are rarely lenient on child murderers.
Jeff Lindy, Massof's attorney, said his client was a key witness against Gosnell, which played a role in his sentence of six to 12 years.
"There will never be another Kermit Gosnell situation," Lindy said. "If you're talking about cases where children are murdered, it is extremely rare, and those defendants are dealt with."