Damned Saint, Honorable Villain
“After being arrested, I was suicidal and hopeless,” Austin Yabandith, a 17-year-old from Superior, Wisconsin, recalls. “As of right now, I am just hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.”
The “worst” would be pretty bad. After discovering indecent photos of Austin’s 15-year-old girlfriend on his cell phone—as well as a video of the couple having sex—authorities charged him with sexual assault of a child, sexual exploitation, and possession of child pornography. The sexual assault charge is considered a Class C felony, and carries a maximum (though unlikely) sentence of 40 years in prison.
For now, Austin is out on bail, awaiting his next court date. He is charged with sexual exploitation, sexual assault of a child under the age of 16, and possession of child pornography. He waived a preliminary hearing and is now waiting for his arraignment—a formal reading of the charges against him—on October 18.
He is being represented by the public defender assigned to him. His family can’t afford better legal representation.
“I’m scared,” Austin tells me. “My life could be completely ruined by this.”
His would not be the first. The criminal justice system’s love affair with overzealously prosecuting sex crimes has imposed life-derailing sanctions on countless teens. Laws that were designed to punish pedophiles—adults who take advantage of kids decades younger—are being haphazardly deployed against the kids themselves. Consider Karlo Ponzanelli, a 17-year-old who was sentenced to six months in jail, probation, and 10 years on the sex offender registry, for having sex with an underage girl. Or Zach Anderson, a 19-year-old who was sentenced to 25 years on the sex offender registry for having sex with a 14-year-old who had pretended to be 17. Or Cormega Copening. Or the Manassas-area 17-year-old who was arrested for sexting with his 15-year-old girlfriend. In that case, officers working for a task force that focused on crimes against children obtained a warrant to give him an erection and photograph it. The officer in charge of the task force, David Abbott, later committed suicide before he could be arrested. The authorities suspect he was actually a sex predator.
Abbott is an extreme example of law enforcement’s disturbing role in these cases. Most cops who investigate sexting probably have good intentions. But the result is the same: adults rifling through graphic photos of underage teenagers in order to punish the teenagers for doing this exact thing.
The difference is critical. It’s wrong for a middle-aged person to view a child as a sexual being. But it’s not wrong for teenagers of relatively similar ages to view each other that way. On the contrary: it’s just about the most natural impulse a teenager possesses. Sexting is nothing more than a modern way for teenagers to act on these impulses—there isn’t anything uniquely sinister or dangerous about it. Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist at Bridgewater State University, writes that the practice is becoming “a normal part of teens’ sexual development,” and shouldn’t be demonized. The practice is so widespread as to be unpreventable, anyway: more than half of college undergraduates engaged in sexting when they were minors.
Schools have a legitimate interest in preventing kids from sharing each other’s pictures with the entire student body. But they can address the so-called scourge of sexting the same way they address other behavioral problems: confiscate phones, assign detention, and contact parents. They can make it clear that sexting at school is against the rules. What they shouldn’t do is call the cops.
Of course, schools have little choice of whether to involve the criminal justice system when a police officer is already roaming the halls.
“Things were taken way too far before we had a chance to fix the situation ourselves,” says Austin.
For what it’s worth, Austin doesn’t blame his current situation on Kim. “People make mistakes,” he says.
If only the criminal justice system had the same attitude toward teen relationships.
*Read this story at: http://reason.com/blog/2016/09/13/romeo-and-juliet-and-sexting-17-year-old
Damned Saint, Honorable Villain
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