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Laws being twisted to criminalize teen sexuality

Sex crimes are among the most abhorrent. They can shatter security, damage trust and invade a victim’s core being. Rapists and pedophiles deserve tough sentences and treatment. If that doesn’t reform them, they should be kept away from society.

It’s unfortunate, then, that, in their quest to crack down on sex offenses, prosecutors and legislators are going off on pointless tangents that risk trivializing them.

Ask the young man who was a 17-year-old Sioux City, Iowa, high school student last year when he shot a racy 10-second video of himself and a girlfriend on his cell phone. At age 18, he texted it to a friend. Evidently he had his pants down, making visible his private parts.

It was a careless, immature thing to do – though maybe not so surprising in a culture that seems to prolong adolescence and encourages everyone to broadcast their most private thoughts and actions. But it’s doubtful the kid thought he’d be prosecuted for a sex crime.

Charged, as an adult, with telephone dissemination of obscene material to a minor (the friend was 17), he was looking at two years in jail and 10 years on the sex-offender registry, if convicted. That would have barred him, as he set off for college, from living in any public Iowa college dorm.

That’s absurd. In effect, laws intended to prevent adults from preying sexually on children are now being used to prosecute the kids themselves.

The practice of “sexting” – youth texting revealing pictures of themselves – is increasingly being prosecuted as child pornography or other felonies, the Associated Press reported, with cases in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mischievous teen behavior is criminalized, youth are forever stigmatized, and the meaning of sex crimes is diminished.

The Iowa kid was lucky. He got to take a plea bargain, sparing him the draconian consequences of being branded a sex offender. But not before his family had spent $50,000 defending him.

One person who’s outraged is David Coster, a Grinnell, Iowa, surgeon. He’s been contacting lawmakers to persuade them to change the law. Exploring burgeoning sexuality, says Coster, is an inherent part of teen development: “To now criminalize it is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever heard.”

Weren’t those making these decisions ever kids themselves? Did they ever show a Playboy to a friend?

Of course lurid pictures shouldn’t be sent to unsuspecting young people who don’t welcome them. But surely that can be handled with more appropriate discipline.

The overreaction isn’t limited to sexting and teens. Iowa’s sex-offender residency law also doesn’t differentiate between pedophiles and pranksters in forbidding registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools or child-care centers.

Even advocates for sexual-assault victims have opposed it for its unintended consequences. One Iowa man on the registry was 19 when he exposed himself at a party in the presence of a 13-year-old, among others. A decade later, though he had completed his sentence and probation, married and had kids, the law forced him to live an hour from his job.

It’s time for lawmakers, prosecutors and courts to take a deep breath and seriously consider where they’re headed here. Criminalizing youthful indiscretions and forcing ex-convicts into homelessness isn’t going to make society safer.

Let’s return to common sense, weigh each case separately and save the harshest provisions for the most hopeless, egregious offenders.

Rekha Basu is an editorial columnist for the Des Moines Register. E-mail: rbasu@dmreg.com.

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