02/28/2013 07:07 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Prosecutor Shaming: Berkshire, Massachusetts Second Assistant District Attorney Robert W. Kinzer III

Mr. Kinzer thinks we must protect sexting teenagers from ruining their lives . . . by ruining their lives.

As the head of the DA's computer crime unit, which includes several state troopers, Kinzer cited "kids, young adults, even adults who think it is a good idea to take nude or semi-nude photos of themselves on their cellphones and send them to other people via text message."

Youngsters who are under 18 fail to realize that they have created and manufactured child pornography, Kinzer warned a group of parents during an informational session at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School this past week.

"When you send that text message, you have disseminated child pornography" and when it is shared and shown to others, they are in possession of child pornography, he pointed out.

"We do not have any exceptions in our law for kids who are really in love, for girls who wanted to do it and for guys who promised they wouldn't share it, or for two kids who are dating," Kinzer said. "A nude photo of [a minor's] exposed genitalia is child pornography."

The prosecutor explained that he has spread the word at schools throughout Berkshire County.

"I'm done telling what the law is," Kinzer said. "When they start sharing photos like this, we are going to start charging people with the manufacturing, dissemination and possession of child pornography, and they're going to go to court.

"They're going to face [prosecution], probably not jail time unless they've got bad records. But that's OK. They'll just be put on probation and they'll get to register as a sex offender, and that's a great box to check off on any job application," he continued. "You're going to lose jobs and relationships, and you'll spend the rest of your life as a registered sex offender."

Teenagers, sex, and computers are three topics that always seem to send elected officials into fits of panic. Combine all three into one story, and you get reactions like Kinzer's. He certainly isn't the first prosecutor to make this argument. In 2007, even a Florida appeals court upheld a conviction based on the same twisted logic -- that ruining the lives of sexting teens is the only way to save them.

Kinzer also cites "hook-up" applications for smart phones and Facebook, and, like the judge who wrote the opinion in the Florida case, brings up the argument that the Internet is full of strangers looking to prey on children. But this too is nonsense. In 2009, 49 state attorneys general asked a task force to look at the problem of predators using the Internet to find underage victims. The committee's conclusion? Internet predation of kids isn't really a problem at all. There's no real evidence that use of the Internet and social networking makes kids more susceptible to sexual exploitation.

The criminal justice system is far too blunt an instrument to deal with this sort of thing. Young people are going to make mistakes. It's part of growing up. Of course, older people sometimes send "sext messages" they later regret, too. But the mere fact that teens are young ought to be a reason to cut them some slack. Instead, in this context, their age and inexperience are precisely why their mistakes become a crime.

If you were to give Kinzer the benefit of the doubt here, you could argue that he doesn't appear to have actually prosecuted anyone for this yet. So maybe his warning is just that -- an attempt to scare kids away from sexting that he has no real intention of carrying out. Perhaps. But this isn't an issue in which the criminal justice system should be meddling at all. A prosecutors isn't a ministers, parents, doctor, or therapist -- all of whom are far more appropriate people to handle a problem like this. If you're promising to ruin a teen's life for a mistake that's really just a modern twist on something teens have been doing since -- well, forever -- then maybe it's time to reevaluate your priorities.

And maybe it's time for voters, or your boss, to reevaluate your fitness for office.



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