New Approaches to Youth “Sexting” Issue

By Mary Kathryn Burke

Mar 22, 2010 5:13pm

ABC News' Sulina Gabale reports: “Just because you grow up with technology in your hands doesn’t mean you know the repercussions of using it,” Rep. Martha Jane King, (D-Lewisburg) told ABC News, while explaining her efforts in the Kentucky state Senate to minimize penalties against minors involved in sexting-related activities.

This recent controversial trend among the youth labeled “sexting” – the act of sending sexually explicit photographs or messages by cell phone – is quickly becoming a source of contention among states. In the past, most states imposed felony child pornography charges or the risk of being listed as a registered sex offender for minors when dealing with the situation.

However, some states are now rethinking methods of tackling the problem by reducing penalties and implementing counseling and community service as a means for individual reform. Nebraska, Utah and Vermont have already changed their laws. They argue that child pornography laws are too weighty in dealing with cases involving adolescent cyber-culture in which there are no third-party interventions.

A Kentucky state Senate committee unanimously approved a measure last week that would enforce less strict penalties for teenagers involved in sexting-related activities. The House Bill 143 states: “a first offense shall be a violation and the court shall impose a fine… In addition to the fine imposed, the court shall require the child to participate in a community services work program.”

King, who primarily sponsored the Bill said, “We needed to bridge the gap between people saying ‘Hey let’s let this issue go’ and ‘Hey, let’s make these kids criminals.’”

The very same day, a similar Illinois bill passed through its state Senate proposing that the minor in question “obtain counseling or other supportive services to address the acts,” and “perform community service.”

The reasoning behind it is simple; educate rather than intimidate. King went on to say, “We feel like by making it a violation instead of a felony or misdemeanor, it gives people the opportunity to address the issue and allows the judge to talk to the child and parents about the act being inappropriate.”

Although such measures would seemingly appease parents of involved parties, some claim it tramples on their First Amendment rights over their child’s upbringing. The 2008 case Miller v. Mitchell dealt with the issue of whether or not a teenager can be prosecuted for possessing and distributing child pornography in which she appeared. The District Attorney at the time decided on a voluntary after-school “education program” ranging 6 to 9 months for the students (much like the programs posited by Kentucky and Illinois) and threatened to bring felony charges against those who did not complete it.

The mothers of the students retaliated by blocking the charges and claiming the DA’s action encroached on their Constitutional right to direct their daughters’ upbringings without governmental interference. The district court agreed with the mothers and barred the DA from initiating any criminal charges against the girls.

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