Young people who send “sexts” to their friends risk being prosecuted under the laws against child pornography, Victoria’s Children’s Court president, Judge Paul Grant, has warned in a submission to the state parliament’s Law Reform Committee.

“This is highly undesirable,” he said in the submission to the committee’s inquiry into sexting.  “The Children’s Court would support a system that provides for graduated responses depending on the degree of ‘criminality’ involved.”

Judge Grant’s court supports the police “warning or cautioning alleged offenders and diverting them from the criminal system”.

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Magistrate William Gibb agrees with this approach and has urged that sexting be made a specific legal offence, which it is not now.  “I would agree if it means that children can avoid going on the Sex Offenders’ Register,” he told Crikey. “In the Children’s Court, the sorts of sentences handed down are all about deterrence, so that young offenders don’t go on to further criminal activity.”

Mr Gibb noted the importance of the “education programs going around. These are trying to deal with sexting in the home and schools.”

First Constable Zac Bull, of Victoria Police, who also works as a part-time secondary-school teacher, confirmed that police and educators were striving to prevent sexting. “We have a lot of pamphlets, we do a lot of talks in primary schools,” he told Crikey. Constable Bull said police were already diverting young people from the road leading to criminal convictions. “A consequence (for alleged offenders) can mean anything from a caution without charge … (This) stays with you for five years. If you muck up again it becomes a criminal charge.”

The consequences of sexting include “bullying and bashing,” Constable Bull said. “Things like that aren’t uncommon (including the) isolation of friends.”

Isabella, a 15 year-old who attends a co-educational school in Melbourne’s north-east, has witnessed this. “People make a big deal of it. (Females are) bullied a bit but then it passes,” she told Crikey.

Those advocating reform of the sexting laws to protect young males from being treated as criminals are keen to stress that they are also keeping the welfare of sexting victims in mind. Asked to identify the principal victim of sexting, Mr Gibb, the magistrate, told Crikey, “I suppose the young female.”

Constable Bull agreed: “Girls are more vulnerable. They need to be protected as best they can.”

Isabella Sommers concurs. “The girl will get the blame. The guy is never blamed.”