Crime recording rule changes urged to avoid criminalising children for 'sexting'
Crime recording rules should be adapted so children are not routinely criminalised for "sexting", a group of MPs and peers claim.
Weaknesses in the regime governing how police must log cases risk leaving youngsters who send explicit images of themselves over social media or messaging services to their peers with a criminal record or having their details added to police databases, according to a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC).
The study said police and headteachers have raised concerns that children and young people are being issued with out-of-court disposals "simply for exhibiting behaviours associated with growing up or 'experimental' behaviour, such as sexting".
Although they are generally used in minor cases where a full prosecution is not deemed to be required, out-of-court disposals can be placed on an individual's record and disclosed in background checks carried out by some potential employers.
The APPGC said this risks "criminalising the young person and potentially limiting their future educational and career options".
It said: "Within current crime recording standards, there is an expectation that every crime will have an outcome.
"There are concerns that these standards mean that police officers are only able to record the incident as having 'no further action' or to record an outcome that results in the young person having a long-term criminal record or being placed inappropriately on a crime database."
Earlier this year a 14-year-old boy was added to a police database after he sent a naked image of himself to a female classmate on picture messaging app Snapchat.
The incident came to the attention of police and was recorded as a crime of making and distributing an indecent image. The teenager was later told it was added to his file on the police national database.
Baroness Massey, who co-chairs the group, said the rules that dictate how police record their response mean "many young people end up with a criminal record for trivial offences".
She added: "We know, for example, that teenagers are being added to police databases for sexting with their peers.
"In cases such as these, police should have the discretion to refer the child to another agency for support - their school, social services or counselling, for example - without it forming a permanent part of the record held against the name and undermining their future."
The group called on the Home Office to review counting rules on recording crime and give police the option of logging cases in a new category which would allow "low-level crime-related behaviour" to be addressed by a welfare agency without forming part of the child's record or being disclosed in a criminal history check.
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau, said: "Resorting to criminal sanctions for childhood behaviours is often a waste of police time and counter-productive.
"It's time to rethink how the police respond to those children whose behaviour is often related to their vulnerabilities and need for support."
The trend for sexting among youngsters has emerged as a challenging issue for the authorities.
There have been warnings that the practice can leave teenagers vulnerable to exploitation or blackmail. It was disclosed earlier this year that child protection officers are probing one case involving sexting every day.
Separate data obtained by The Sun indicated that more than 1,000 under-18s have been investigated for sexting since 2012.
The APPG report also called for crime recording standards for children's homes to be brought in line with those for schools, saying minor incidents can leave children in care with a criminal record unnecessarily.
Policing minister Mike Penning said: "We have been clear that the police must accurately record the crimes members of the public report to them - it is essential victims have confidence they will be taken seriously and their crime will be dealt with properly.
"Even seemingly minor offences can involve significant harm to the victim, or be part of a long-running pattern of victimisation.
"If a member of the public reports any violent incident, the police must record it as such. Police officers can and should, however, exercise their discretion in the action they take once a crime has been reported."