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Report Shows Teens are Still at Risk of Being Criminalised for “Sexting”

9 Dec 2019 10:30AM

  • Children, some under the age of 14, are still being arrested for “youth sexting” despite police guidance against action that leaves them with a criminal record. 

  • Guidance to avoid children, some under the age of 14, being criminalised for “youth sexting” is being used by police – but only in certain parts of the country. 

  • “Outcome 21 recording”, developed to avoid criminalising children, is being applied to some degree in all forces, however, the number of recordings in some forces is extremely high and is very clearly disproportionate across different forces. 

Research in a new report commissioned by the Marie Collins Foundation and undertaken by University of Suffolk has shown that young people are subject to a “postcode lottery” over whether engaging in “youth sexting” might have a lasting impact on their lives and possible future careers. 

Under the 1978 Protection of Children Act, the generation or distribution of indecent images of children is illegal. However, the legislation that sought to protect child victims could never have predicted that by the 21st century teenagers would be self-producing and distributing their own indecent images. Nevertheless, this legislation has been used to charge increasing numbers of teenagers over the years. 

Ministry of Justice data on juveniles entering the criminal justice system as a result of charges under the Protection of Children Act doubled between 2007 and 2016 – charges that could result in a child’s future when a recorded sex offence would remain on their criminal record for life. In December 2016 the College of Policing issued guidance, known as Outcome 21, to address the increasing number of children being arrested for youth- produced sexual imagery. An “Outcome 21” meant a crime could be recorded as “not in the public interest” and would not be result in the minor having a criminal record. However, a Chief Constable can still rule that the recording be recalled in a criminal record check. 

This research shows that use of the guidance is inconsistent and, at times, disproportionate across the UK and in some cases outcome 21 offences are being recorded in far higher proportions than those charges under the Protection of Children Act. 

Data obtained by Professor Emma Bond and Professor Andy Phippen at the University of Suffolk through Freedom of Information requests has revealed an inconsistent picture across the UK, with children, some of whom are under the age of 14, still being arrested and their behaviour recorded as crime. This research was commissioned by the Marie Collins Foundation, a charity dedicated to the recovery of young victims of online sexual abuse, over growing concerns regarding the continued criminalisation of children through their online activities. 

In 2009, Professor Andy Phippen, co-author of this latest research, published a report showing that 40 per cent of young people aged 14-16 said they knew peers who engaged in sexting. 

Pointing to “legislation tension” between protecting victims and addressing illegality, Professor Phippen added “The legislation was introduced and debated before the day when the impact of the internet on society, let alone someone self-generating an indecent image of themselves from their bedroom and have it passed around many recipients with the touch of a button, could ever have been envisioned. While Outcome 21 is a progressive step forward we need to be mindful it can still come up on a criminal record check at the discretion of a Chief Constable.” 

Detailing the responses of 32 police forces, the report reveals the number of arrests related to the taking, making or distribution of an indecent image of a child among suspects aged under 18 and under 14, and the comparable number of Outcome 21 recordings made. 

While the data does not show the complexity of each case, it does confirm that children under 14 are still being arrested. Moreover, the data shows that Outcome 21 is being applied by most of the forces that responded, sometimes far exceeding the number of arrests. For example, Staffordshire Police used Outcome 21 for under 18s on 365 occasions compared with just five arrests, Greater Manchester applied it 414 times and made just six arrests and Derbyshire arrested three under-18s and utilised Outcome 21 300 times. 

Tink Palmer MBE, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation, said “The criminalisation of children is an issue that has been of concern to me for some time. This is an initial exploration of how police forces are deploying the Outcome 21 guidance, and whether intention has transferred into practice. 

“I am pleased that a number of progressive police forces are using Outcome 21 in a way to still record crime without the risk of criminalisation for young people in cases where it is appropriate. Of course, where arrest is entirely valid then police still have this option. 

She added, however, that she remained concerned about the apparent inconsistency of the application of Outcome 21. 

“In some areas children are still being arrested and subject to the full law enforcement process and a criminal record instead of Outcome 21 being applied. There is a risk that children engaging in sexting are falling victim to a postcode lottery, where the likelihood of their being arrested for this sort of crime depends upon where they live. 

“I would like to see the guidance being applied every time it is appropriate to do so and applied in the same way by all police forces across the country, whilst, at the same time, we continue educating children about the risks of engaging in this kind of activity.” 

Click here to view the report


University of Suffolk Press Office
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