Are existing laws putting the futures of our adolescents at risk?
Teenage sexting, that is, texting sexual content in words, images, and videos, is getting youngsters into trouble all over the country because our laws have not caught up with our technology. Less than a year ago, two 16-year-olds, high school sweethearts, sent one another nude selfies. Neither coerced, nor abused, the other. Nonetheless, in the eyes of the law in North Carolina, where this took place, they had possessed and distributed child pornography.
If not for a huge public outcry, these two minors, each accused of "exploiting a minor," a felony, might have ended up incarcerated for years and spent decades on the sex offender registry -- all for sharing what they believed to be private pictures of themselves. Fortunately, they were allowed to plea bargain down to misdemeanors and each was sentenced to a year's probation.
Recently, on Long Island, 20 students were suspended for sexting when a video of a sexual encounter between two minors was circulated among the student population. Legally, this is distribution of child pornography. While the Superintendent of Smithtown Central School District wrote a letter to parents stating "[this is] a very serious legal matter that the district will not take lightly," many parents are fighting back, saying their children have no way of protecting themselves from messages being texted to them.
Obviously, the felony laws regarding child pornography were written to prevent predatory behavior, not teenage indiscretions, but until the laws are updated, prosecutors have to walk a fine line. No one wants to ruin the futures of youngsters who are immature and exercising bad judgment. On the other hand, the boundaries can be blurry. There are certainly circumstances under which sexting can become a serious crime -- for example when an adult is involved, when force or harassment is present, or when pictures are posted on public websites.
William Fitzpatrick, president of the National District Attorneys Association, has recommended that prosecutors tread lightly when dealing with adolescent misbehavior, and has called for new legislation targeting this problem, since most, if not all, the laws governing pornography were written prior to the development of the internet.
About 20 states have already adopted new laws addressing juvenile sexting which include misdemeanor charges, and punishments including community service, counseling and criminal records that may be expunged. Even in states that haven't enacted legislation, some judges have come up with inventive punishments, including restricting the cell phone and internet use of the youngsters involved. In most cases, such measures seem much more sensible and productive than publicly branding teenagers as sex offenders, labels that could follow them throughout their lives.
If you or your child is facing a legal problem, please contact the skilled attorneys at Ianniello Anderson, serving clients in the Albany, Clifton Park, Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs, Troy, and the entire Northeastern NY areas, at 518-350-7755.