Federal Politics

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Setting sexting in perspective

THE term sexting is no longer a neologism but a fully fledged word, with its own listing in the latest edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. But it is still a relatively new word, whose definition - ''the sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages'' [via mobile phone] - still requires explanation.

For all its brief history, sexting has already earned a place in Victoria's legal history by being the subject of two inquiries: as the main focus of a forthcoming parliamentary inquiry commissioned last September by state Attorney-General Robert Clark, which is due to report by the end of the year; and as a component of a wider review into the registration of sex offenders by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, also commissioned by Mr Clark, in April of last year.

This week, the VLRC's report was tabled in State Parliament. Its 79 recommendations have one common thread: to make the registration of sex offenders more streamlined and more effective in protecting children from sexual abuse. As the commission points out, over the seven years the scheme has been operating more than 4000 people have been placed on the register. At this rate, the commission says, the number is expected to reach 10,000 by 2020, thereby putting even more strain on police and the Department of Human Services.

One of the report's recommendations is that young adults successfully prosecuted for sexting would no longer be automatically placed on the register. As the Law Institute of Victoria points out in its submission to the VLRC inquiry, ''the mandatory nature of the registration scheme has led to unjust outcomes where the legislation has not kept pace with technological and societal changes''. In other words, young offenders whose actions may pose little risk to society face ''onerous obligations'', including automatic registration for up to 15 years or even for life, that can affect their social and employment prospects. Other submissions have also called for statutory inclusion to be replaced with individual assessment.

The legal implications of sexting, although the subject of the other inquiry, cannot help but impinge on the VLRC's findings, especially since they involve relatively low-level offences that cannot be compared with the high-risk sex offenders who rightly and justly deserve to be on the register. Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay said as much in his response to the report, adding that police were already struggling to manage the scheme. The government should waste no time in implementing the report's recommendations.