18 year old put on the sex offender registry for sexting; yes, that is what happened to Phillip Alpert, who after a fight with his 16-year-old girlfriend, sent nude pictures to the people in her e-mail contact list. Mr. Alpert was then indicted on between 72-79 counts including possession and distribution of child pornography; he pled no contest to the charges, received 5 years probation and now must register as a sex offender until the age of 43. At that time he can petition the state to have his name removed provided he gets in no further trouble with the law. Phillip Alpert is just another in a long line of teens being arrested and charged with child pornography for posting nude pictures of self, classmates or friends. A 16 year old faced 20 years in jail for sexing; a 15 year old in Pennsylvania girl was arrested on child porn charges for sending pictures of herself to an adult on-line. What is particularly egregious about Mr. Alpert’s case is; prosecutors seemed to want to throw the book at him; child molesters, child rapists, child killers and true child pornographers have been charged with less.
Not only that but these two young people were boyfriend and girlfriend who had family members and friends probably telling police this; this was also not a young man who had pornographic pictures of several underage girls, just as little as one picture of his girlfriend. Which he, ironically he did not even take; she took it and gave it to him. When the fight occurred, he sent it to her contact list, so there is no indication this young man was bragging about the relationship. Phillip Alpert showed no signs of a young man in trouble, a young man with a fetish, someone who was getting an emotional, sexual or other release, a power trip from looking at nude pictures of anyone; he was not someone who showed any warning signs of becoming a future pedophile. And yet he finds himself on the sex offender registry with people who have murdered, raped and done horrific things to children. The case also screams sexual double standard between male and female; he was charged with everything the law would allow and the girlfriend was charged with nothing, even though she was likewise in possession of child pornography and distributed it by giving it to her boyfriend.
In contrast to these types of cases, we have stories like that of Somer Thompson whose alleged killer, Jarred Harrell, was brought to the attention of police 2 months before Somer’s disappearance when his roommates turned over a computer containing actual child pornography. It took police until February to act on the information, including a file on the computer labeled toddler insertion; in fact, when the possible connection between Harrell and the Thompson case was made, he was behind bars on presumably the computer pornography chargers as well as charges regarding suspected molestation of a young boy. Their reasoning for the time lag that contributed to the death of this young girl, there are just too many child pornography cases to keep up with. However, the Somer Thompson case was in Florida, the same state that took mere days to show up at the home of Phillip Alpert and later place him on the sex offender registry.
Everyone now knows the case of Jacyee Dugard and her caper that was convicted of rape and kidnapping, had a parole officer and a rap sheet and still managed to have children in his back yard. One neighbor interviewed assumed he was a sex offender and was being watched by the law. Police were called there in 2006, the officer did not look in the back yard, where Dugard was eventually found, and was not given the information on the man’s sex offender status. Here is a man who never should have been given early release in the first place, who had had several run ins with the law and caused people to call police about him multiple times, and it took 18 years and 3 ruined lives to put him back behind bars.
While, at the same time, prosecutors around the country are using the long arm of the law to crush teenagers willingly sending explicit pictures of themselves to others, willingly putting it out there to be distributed by their friends, peers and anyone who can get there hands on it. One of the arguments for not applying child pornography laws to teen sexting cases is that no adult is exploiting them; they are, in essence, exploiting themselves. Obviously teens should not be allowed to do so, but stopping that does not mean charging them with child pornography. What is further appalling about Phillip Alpert and teens like him is that, by now, prosecutors have seen enough of these cases to notice these are kids, not hardened criminals, not sexual psychopaths and yet instead of charging them with the minimum charge, instead of judges and others in the justice system using case by case discretion, they all seem to want, they all seem to like, coming down full force on young people.
Despite the eye popping discrepancies in application of the law in Florida or the botched case of Jaycee Dugard in California, police across the country will tell you they have neither the tools, the financial resources or man power to keep up with child pornography cases. A 7 year old in New Jersey was reportedly sold for sex by her 15year old stepsister; fortunately most of those accused of the assault were caught. But it is outrageous in light of such stories that those trying sexting cases choose to expend so many resources on it leaving even less to deal with the real dangers to society. Because there is no evidence that sexting teens go on to become pedophiles, child molesters, child rapists or even develop an interest in child pornography. There is also no evidence that teens who engage in sexting are more likely to become physically, sexually or emotionally abusive in their relationships either during their teen years or as adults. Further there is no indication that teens caught sexting and questioned by police, reprimanded by their school or parents repeat the same offence. It seems we would rather manufacture criminals than catch the real ones.
And that is not the only way we are taking a chance on creating criminals: Phillip Alpert must now attend sex offender classes with people who have done unspeakable things to children. By forcing him to attend these classes we are telling him he is like these other sick individuals; should he have to continue the classes until age 43, that’s 23 years of being told, in essence, you’re a monster. Couple that with the restrictions of the sex offender registry, limiting the places he can live, work, possibly limiting financial aid for school, even places he is allowed to go, such as a public park, and how long is it before Phillip Alpert becomes the monster we labeled him? How long is it before he says I might as well do what I was accused of, even though his crime and that of the others in the classes are light years apart?
Likewise the 16 year old who won’t see the light of day until somewhere around his 36th birthday, may well get his GED in jail, may well get his college education in prison, but there is far more of a chance all he will gain from his incarceration is more criminal skills. Skills he will feel forced to use because he lacks education, cannot get financial aid for education or, despite his education, no one will hire him because of his record, because of what he was charged with. All for doing something stupid; no not getting involved with gangs, drugs, rape, murder, beating that went too far, prank that went too far, but for sharing pictures given to him, by a girlfriend, a classmate, by saying to a friend here look at this and sending it to them.
Some lawmakers, prosecutors and state legislatures are catching on that it is time to change the law; one city in Florida is now putting forth legislation that decriminalizes the first offence and does not turn sexting into a felony until the 4th offence. This is a step in the right direction; however, legal experts say it is no help those like Phillip Alpert who are 18 and adults in the eyes of the law. Even before the legislation is finalized there is a huge gap in what exists and what needs to be, because the purposed law would only affect those under 18. Before it has begun it has the potential to be a colossal failure due to the fact it leaves out people like Mr. Alpert, despite his story, despite the obvious overkill, when there is no legal precedent to do so. On the contrary there is legal precedent to do just the opposite; you have to be 21 to drink, to enter or work in some adult establishments. Why not extend the suggested legal parameters to those under 21, also including guidelines for sexting cases that involve a boyfriend, girlfriend relationship supported by evidence and testimony?
Judicial and prosecutorial discretion would still apply for cases where individuals did it to multiple people before getting caught, clearly did it as some kind of power play, to humiliate, a form of bullying, or those who show signs of becoming a potential predator. While progress is being made, the other huge problem is that until this law, or something like it, is enacted on a federal level we will still have kids falling through the legal cracks, having the book thrown at them, and until we make that federal law retro active we will still have teens, not hardened criminals, languishing away in prison and on sex offender registries. All of this something that should be unacceptable in the United States of America, a country based on freedom.