Thomas L. Knapp: Time to decriminalize childhood mistakes such as teen sexting

Disturbing: Reports of a “sexting ring” involving a large number of Colorado teens.

More disturbing: The legal response.
“Hundreds of students at Cañon City High School who gave little thought to taking and sharing nude pictures of themselves or classmates could now face criminal charges of child pornography,” reports Kirk Mitchell of the Denver Post.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably an adult who remembers doing stupid things as a teenager — things that you regret, that you hope everyone else has forgotten, and that you’d rather not talk about.
If you’re a parent, you know that your own kids, despite your best efforts to guide them safely to adulthood, are also going to do foolish things that in hindsight they’ll wish they hadn’t done.  It’s just part of growing up.
What no parent wants is for their kids’ childhood mistakes to be hung around their necks like millstones for the rest of their lives due to the ease with which prosecutors try kids “as adults” and impose legal mandates like inclusion on “sex offender registries.”
Yes, it’s saddening that our teenagers sexualize themselves so early; especially so when they memorialize that sexualization in semi-permanent form that can come back to haunt them later. But doing that is so easy these days — every kid has a cell phone and it’s as easy as point, click, share — that to treat teen “sexting” as a crime is perverse.
Even more perverse is the attitude of Fremont County, Colorado District Attorney Tom Ledoux.
On one hand, he claims his hands are tied by outdated child pornography laws, intended to punish predatory adults, that make teen-to-teen sexting a crime: “It doesn’t matter if it was consensual. There is no distinction according to Colorado state statutes.”
On the other hand, he claims the authority to decide for himself which kids are “criminals” and which kids are “victims”: “The district attorney’s office will make distinctions as we see fit.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper should put the brakes on LeDoux’s intended destruction of young lives right now with a two-step process.
First, Hickenlooper should direct Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to prepare pardons for his signature for all students  caught up in LeDoux’s witch hunt, so that he can put an end to it with the least damage possible.
Secondly, he should urge Colorado’s legislature to draft and pass legislation either exempting teen sexting from the state’s definition of child pornography or making it a misdemeanor that doesn’t follow a kid around for life.
Teen sexting is here to stay, because the technology isn’t going away and because kids will be kids. It’s up to us adults to minimize the resulting damage, not add to that damage.

Thomas L. Knapp

Director and senior news analyst

William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism

Florida.

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