Sexting: Does Little Suzy, thirteen, deserve to be branded a sex offender?

This week, legislators in Connecticut introduced a bill that would allow minors between ages thirteen and eighteen who are in a relationship and engage in sexting to be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. This alteration would mean such teens wouldn't wind up being placed on the state's sex-offender registry.

Investigator Mike Harris, a member of the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations unit, who recently sounded an alarm about the Chatroulette website, sees value in the idea. In fact, he confirms that his office is already taking a similar approach.

"We don't want Little Suzy, who's thirteen and who made a horrible mistake, to be labeled a sex offender for ten years," he says.

In Harris's view, some portions of the Colorado criminal code are woefully out of date.

"When we developed the sexual exploitation statute we go by, sexting wasn't even in the realm of thinking," he says. "And the problem is, when you have thirteen- or fourteen-year olds send nude pictures of themselves to each other, technically they're sending child pornography, even if it's them. But the intent of the law isn't to charge kids who are making a foolish mistake."

Were teens to be convicted under the aforementioned statute, the consequences could be long-lasting.

"They wouldn't be charged as an adult, but they could be charged with sexual exploitation of a child, which could be anywhere from a class three to a class four felony," he says. "And that could put them on the sex-offender registry for ten years. So even a fourteen- or a fifteen-year old would have to register until they're 24 or 25. And that's going to effect them trying to get into colleges, trying to get jobs. It's a horrible thing to carry if you were young and innocent and just made a mistake."

As an alternative to this approach, Harris says many teens in sexting cases "are put into a boundaries class, where they talk about what's appropriate and what's inappropriate even with texting, because that often talks about sexual things. And they talk about how these images shouldn't be sent to someone or received by someone. Because the concern isn't just for the sender. It's also for the person receiving it, because you never know if they're going to hold onto it or forward it to someone else."

Not that everyone in this age range is given the boundaries class alternative. Harris gives an example of his office's thinking based on a past incident.

"At a particular school, a young lady sent her boyfriend her picture, and he forwarded it to his two friends -- and they thought it would be cool to print out these pictures and paste them all over the school. The girl was devastated. She dropped out of school."

The punishments doled out? The girl and her boyfriend were put into a boundaries class, while the pair who printed up the photos and put them in public view for all to see "were adjudicated, charged as sex offenders," Harris says. "Because that was malicious, and there are times when we need to charge people who are maliciously forwarding things on, trying to hurt people."

Should Colorado officials assemble a bill of the sort that's been introduced in Connecticut? Harris understands that such a chore can be difficult.

"In 2006, we got a new statute for Internet luring, and when we were doing that, I learned so much," he notes. "You can't just say, 'Here's this bill. Let's enact it.' It's far more complicated than most people realize."

Still, Harris believes that issues like sexting "are growing at such a fast pace that we need to do something. When I go to schools to talk, I ask how many students have cell phones, and 95 percent do. And then I ask how many kids have received inappropriate images, and about 50 percent raise their hands -- and I'm not naive enough to think that there aren't other kids who don't raise their hands because they don't want some teacher to think, 'I need to talk to that kid.'"

As for Harris's imaginary Little Suzy, he thinks she can be taught to understand the risks of texting -- "but if she keeps doing this and doing this and doing this after she takes a boundaries class, then she might be filed on."

With sex-offender status serving as the message.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts