When you tell people you’re passing laws to fight child sexual abuse and child pornography, or when you announce that you’re cracking down on sex offenders who are prowling in your neighborhoods, you are picking low-hanging fruit. There is no union for sex offenders. Even the ACLU is leery of going to bat for edge cases of depictions of child sex. So you can get away with a lot by announcing that if we put this in place, there will be no more coddling of these dangerous predators.
Last November the people of Oregon passed Ballot Measure 73, a law enforcing mandatory-minimum sentencing for people committed of displaying a sexually explicit image of a minor. The second offense gets you 25 years, with no allowance for a judge’s opinion in sentencing. I voted against it even before I knew about the story I’m about to tell you, because I have a problem with zero-tolerance policy. It doesn’t permit tolerance.
There are these two kids from Washington County, in the Portland metro area, named Antjuanece Brown and Jolene Jenkins. Brown is 20, Jenkins is 17, and they met about a year ago. They fell in love. They had the misfortune to do so while on the bottom rung of every social ladder: female, gay, black, working-class and, crucially, young.
Naturally it was in the best interests of the citizens of Oregon to throw one of them in jail.
“On Oct. 12, Tigard police arrested Brown on suspicion of creating child porn, for ‘knowingly subjecting’ Jenkins to sexual intercourse and for ‘luring a minor’ by ‘arousing and satisfying’ Jenkins’ ‘sexual desires.’ The evidence? Provocative photos of Jenkins and someone police identified as Brown, plus an exchange of suggestive text messages.
Washington County’s prosecutor blocked release of the evidence. Therefore, it’s not possible to say with precision what the cell phone images show. Jenkins and Brown say they both agreed to the photos. Jenkins called them ‘silly things that all teenagers do.’“
That’s from the Willamette Week cover story “Sext Crimes,” which is how I learned about all this. The pictures weren’t sold or distributed; they were on Jenkins’s cell phone, which her mother turned in to the police. (She hadn’t minded when Jolene dated older boys.) I knew this kind of panic over sexting was a problem in a lot of places, thanks to a combination of clear-eyed legal discussion on the topic by the EFF and hyperbolic, hyperventilating stories published in news media. But the WW article was the sharpest and most personal I’d seen.
Because she didn’t want to risk becoming a registered sex offender, Brown pled guilty to a lesser charge, with a fine and three years’ probation, that still made her a felon. Her family didn’t have the money for bail, so she spent a month behind bars before trial, and she still owes thousands of dollars in court fees. She lost her job and her future career is wrecked. She’s forbidden to have contact with Jenkins until she turns 18.
Most of the time I’m proud of my government in Oregon; I’ve been grateful to see Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley actually vote the way I want in the Senate, and I’m even a fan of mayor Sam Adams, tarnish aside. But I hope Lew Frederick and Chip Shields, my state congressmen, read the letters I’m sending them, because this is unconscionable. Whose life is better for the prosecution of Antjuanece Brown?
I got in touch with Jolene Jenkins through Antjuanece Brown’s lawyer when the Willamette posted her email in a follow-up blurb to the news story. Jolene in turn pointed me to the site she’s created to support Antjuanece and raise the money to pay off her fine and legal fees. I gave what I could because Jolene is doing a good thing there. She used to want to grow up to be a lawyer, though seeing what the legal system did to her girlfriend is making her reconsider. I think that’s a shame.
I hope Jolene does pursue a legal career, and that Antjuanece gets to do social work like she’s wanted to. I hope Jolene and Antjuanece have a happy reunion in July, even if their relationship doesn’t last forever. I mean, why should it? They’re young. They should be allowed to try things, to make mistakes.
Except those photos weren’t a mistake. They were an expression of love between two innocent people. The mistake was that people who had no business seeing them did so, and that Washington County DA Bob Hermann exploited them to screw up somebody’s life so that he could ge re-elected for being Tough On Crime.
The mistake was his, and when we pick low-hanging fruit without considering the consequences, the mistake is ours.