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  1. Opinion

Don't treat teen sexting as a crime

Newspaper reports last week about the efforts of officials in Manassas, Va., to forcibly induce an erection in a teenager to pursue "sexting" charges against him deservedly provoked national outrage. Manassas police have since backed down and now say that they won't execute the search warrant. But the Commonwealth of Virginia was prepared to create child pornography so that it could prosecute a 17-year-old for sending videos of himself to his then-girlfriend, who was 15.

The very notion that the state would need to sexually exploit a minor in order to protect minors from sexual exploitation serves as a tidy microcosm of the "sexting" debate in general: Too many schools, police, judges and prosecutors have concluded that we must destroy these kids in order to save them.

The best example of the absurdity of this approach is a 2007 case in Florida, in which a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy were convicted of "directing or promoting a photograph featuring the sexual conduct of a child" and possession of child pornography for emailing explicit photos to one another. The two hadn't broken the law by having sex, only by creating, sending and possessing photos of their sex. The state of Florida thought it had to protect these two minors from the theoretical damage to their lives or careers that might have been done, had the photos been released, by turning them into convicted child pornographers.

The argument in favor of prosecuting sexting is that the photos could wind up in the hands of a sexual predator. Perhaps that has happened but, having followed this issue for years, I can't recall one such incident, much less a trend. I don't think anyone would argue that it's a good idea for minors to send explicit photos of themselves to one another. But there's simply no evidence that the harm they're imposing upon themselves by doing so justifies treating them as criminals.

Sex isn't the only context in which we're ruining kids under the pretense of saving them. We're protecting kids from drugs by arresting and jailing them for marijuana possession. We're protecting them from the (mostly nonexistent) problem of school violence by assigning law enforcement to patrol middle and high schools — so kids who were once reprimanded, assigned detention or possibly suspended for fighting, throwing food or truancy are now fed into the criminal justice system.

We have an increasing tendency to use the criminal justice system to "fix" the sorts of problems once addressed by families, schools, religious organizations and other civic institutions.

Perhaps the best thing we can do to help kids right now is to stop the people who are trying to save them.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for the Washington Post.