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Corrections Responses for Juvenile Sexting

January 2nd, 2011

It was ten years ago last month that I raised the issue of computer delinquency in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin  December 2000, article, “Juveniles and Computers: Should We Be Concerned?” The article discussed how juveniles were increasing being involved in all manner of high tech delinquency from hacking to check fraud and counterfeiting. Some juveniles were also getting involved in possession and distribution of child pornography. The article concluded with “Only by recognizing early on that computer delinquency is a serious matter that inflicts financial and ethical burdens on society can the criminal justice system hope to effectively handle these youths before they become master computer criminals.” Little did I realize what was on the horizon.

I really missed the mark. With the increased use of mobile devices, particularly by our youth, we now have minors involved in juvenile sexting.  How could I have not realized that juveniles would actually be creating their own child pornography with the future’s technology? What are the corrections implications for this activity? Should juvenile authorities be involved with these cases or is it just a phase our youth will go through?

In “Sexting: Risky Actions and Overreactions” (FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 2010) I discussed with Michael Sullivan that these cases poses a challenge for numerous groups to act responsibly with common sense and sound discretion.  The article provides a framework for deciding an appropriate investigative and/or legal response to these cases.  Before I delve into juvenile corrections considerations, let me be clear about one thing. These considerations only apply if we are dealing solely with juveniles and not adults. An adult involved in the situation changes the dynamics, particularly if they were the cause or catalyst for the juvenile’s involvement.

Prevention is really the key to these cases. Youth must be educated about Internet safety, computer usage ethics, and the repercussions of inappropriate online behavior. Digital images do not deteriorate over time and can be easily distributed worldwide. Offensive online behavior posted on a social networking site may seem “funny,” when one is 15-years old but may be extremely difficult to explain away when one is trying to get into college or even get hired. Active Internet safety/ethic presentations should be part of every school’s curriculum. Such presentations can help minimize or prevent future juvenile sexting occurrences as well as cyberbullying. They also can be used as a component in developing diversion programs for cases which do not warrant formal juvenile adjudication.

Once a juvenile case is presented for adjudication, officials need to evaluate several factors to ascertain an appropriate response to the underlining conduct. For instance, if we are talking about images, how did they come to be created? Did the victim take the images and forward them? Were they coerced or somehow forced to take the images or were they taken without their knowledge? What is the age difference between the victim and the person who created, received, and/or distributed them? It may be a mitigating factor where there is little or no disparity in age. However, if the offender is significantly older (e.g., a 15-year-old with pictures of an 8-year-old) there are serious treatment considerations present. Has the offending youth participated in similar misconduct in the past?

Likewise, did the offender forward the images or messages to get back at the victim? Did the initial illicit activity somehow transform into cyberbullying or Internet harassment? Was the act itself perpetrated by the juvenile offender meant to be a “prank’? For instance, a wayward male teenager taking a picture of his privates and posting them on a school’s computers. Evaluating these issues will help juvenile corrections recommend appropriate responses that do not go overboard but likewise do not underestimate a possible serious problem area.

Finally, juvenile community corrections officers also need to become familiar with how youth use computers and the Internet for delinquent behavior if they can hope to fashion realistic supervision strategies. It is kind of ironic that over ten years ago when I made my observations about computer delinquency some of today’s teenagers were only toddlers. In some ways, they have out distanced many in corrections with regards to technology. It is really time we as a professionals started to seriously look how technology and new opportunities for delinquent/criminal behavior are developing. If we don’t the next challenge may be far more serious than juvenile sexting.

References

Bowker, Art and Sullivan, Michael. “Sexting: Risky Actions and Overreactions” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (July 2010, Volume 79, No. 7) 27-31. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/july-2010/sexting

Bowker, Arthur L. “The Advent of the Computer Delinquent” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (December 2000, Volume 69, No. 12) : 7-11. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/2000-pdfs/dec00leb.pdf

Bowker, Arthur L. “Juveniles and Computers: Should We Be Concerned?” Federal Probation 63, No. 2 (December 1999): 40-43. Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/viewer.aspx?doc=/uscourts/FederalCourts/PPS/Fedprob/1999decfp.pdf

Computer delinquency refers to any delinquent act or criminal behavior committed by a juvenile where a computer was the tool used in the offense, was the target of a delinquent act, or contained evidence of a delinquent act.

Juvenile sexting entails youths sending or posting sexually suggestive text messages and images, including nude or seminude photographs, via cellular telephones or over the Internet.

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