Justice Patterson continued in relevant part as follows: There is no evidence in the endangering statute’s plain language that the Legislature intended to incorporate the penetration or age-disparity elements of the sexual assault statute, or the force or coercion elements of the criminal sexual contact statute, into the endangering offense. The Court does not agree that in order for a juvenile, who is fewer than four years older than the victim, to be adjudicated delinquent under N.J.S.A 2C:244(a)(1), there must be proof of sexual penetration, force, or coercion. The endangering statute simply makes no mention of the elements cited by the panel. Had the Legislature intended to limit the application of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) to cases in which the juvenile has also violated specific provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2 or N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3, as the panel suggests, it would have done so by adding language to that effect. Accordingly, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) as currently drafted may apply to a juvenile, even when the specific conduct involved does not involve sexual penetration, force, or coercion and the juvenile and alleged victim are fewer than four years apart in age.
The contrasting interpretations of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) advanced in this case signal a need for legislative review of the endangering statute as it applies to juvenile settings such as this appeal. As D.M.’s case illustrates, it would be helpful if the statutory language “sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the morals of the child” provided clearer guidance to courts, counsel, and the public in settings involving sexual conduct by juveniles close in age. Should it choose to do so, the Legislature could amend N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) to clarify its intent with respect to the statute’s application to juvenile adjudications.
There is caselaw holding that courts should construe penal statutes strictly against the State and should avoid interpretations that lead to absurd results. It is arguably an absurd result to require a four year difference in ages for the strict liability offense that is commonly referred to as “statutory rape”, but not require the four year age difference in a case involving two juveniles.