States weigh relaxing penalties for teen sexting

“It’s an extraordinarily common behavior among kids, like it or not,” said Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University who has studied how child pornography laws have been applied to sexting. “I hope lawmakers and prosecutors figure out quickly how to address it, because it’s not going away.”

Parents and educators are the most likely to discover that a teen has sent or received lewd photos. Even when police or prosecutors get involved, most cases don’t result in felony charges. But it has happened.

Six Pennsylvania teens faced felony child pornography charges after police found underage boys swapping nude pictures of female classmates. Three girls were charged with manufacturing and distributing child porn, and three boys were charged with possession. The case ended up in juvenile court, where the teens were sentenced to community service and curfews.

In another Pennsylvania case last year, a federal judge blocked a prosecutor from filing felony charges against teen girls caught in a sexting investigation.

Last month, a Michigan prosecutor announced he had authorized felony charges against three 13- and 14-year-olds caught sexting.

In Rhode Island, a 16-year-old avoided felony charges last summer but pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and indecent exposure. The boy had shown friends an explicit phone video of himself with a female student. He was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and prohibited from owning a cell phone with a camera for one year.

Prosecutors and judges need more discretion to treat each cast of sexting differently, according to Sherry Capps Cannon, a former principal and high school administrator who recently graduated from Southern University Law Center in Louisiana, where she wrote a law review article examining laws surrounding teen sexting.

There’s a big difference, she said, between an adult who eMails an explicit photo of a young teen and a 15-year-old who sends such a photo to a boyfriend. But laws in most states make no distinction.

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