Teens Charged with Sexting May Face New Laws

Each legislative session, the Oklahoma House and Senate review hundreds of proposed bills, a good many of them designed to make penalties tougher for those who break the law.

New Bill in Oklahoma Legislature

However, occasionally, legislators hear a bill that is intended to provide leniency, letting common sense take the place of a hard line against crime. One such bill is House Bill 2541, a bill which, if passed, would reduce the penalties for teens caught "sexting."

Under current legislation, transmitting sexually explicit images of anyone under the age of 18 is considered distribution of child pornography. There is no legal loophole that excludes those under the age of 18 from sex crime conviction if they send such pictures of themselves to others in their peer group.

An 18- or 19-year-old looking for "barely legal"porn is not pushing the envelope; rather, he or she is looking at images of people in his or her own age bracket. Likewise, a 15-year-old who sends or receives an explicit "sext"is not a pedophile, but rather someone who is simply interested in people his or her own age. Does being branded a sex offender, a child pornographer, or a pedophile serve the best interests of teens who are motivated by curiosity, hormones, and a lack of impulse control?

HB 2541 says no.

The bill, which unanimously passed in the House of Representatives last week, would change sexting among teens to a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 to $1000 fine and the possibility of a mandatory sexting education course teaching the legal and social ramifications of sharing explicit photos of oneself or others.

According to Representative Terry O'Donnell, R-Catoosa, who authored the bill, existing laws which applied to adults involved in producing, possessing, and distributing child pornography were too harsh for teens who sext among themselves. Because of these laws, which rightfully prosecute child pornography as a felony punishable by lengthy prison sentences and sex offender registration, teens were facing consequences far too severe for an offense which is not intended to victimize or sexually exploit minors. Some law enforcement agencies, he said, failed to take action against teen sexting because the penalties far outweighed the seriousness of the offense. By modifying the law, O'Donnell feels that teens can understand the serious legal repercussions of sexting without paying for a foolish youthful mistake for the rest of their lives.

O'Donnell wants to make it clear that he is not advocating lesser measures against adults who engage in child pornography:

"Right now, under state law, what these teens are participating in is classified as child pornography. That's a felony that would negatively impact the future of Oklahoma minors who don't know what they're getting themselves into. While I do not support lessening charges like these for adults, this isn't the same issue and shouldn't be treated as such. Our district attorneys may still prosecute these crimes as felonies if they choose, but now we have an alternate remedy that will discourage children from sexting but not destroy their lives before they even graduate high school. Since sexting typically involves two willing participants giving into adolescent impulses without long-term thought of consequences, I believe this measure is an appropriate way to tackle an issue that didn't exist just a few years ago."

Punishments for Sexting

HB 2541 would lessen the legal ramifications of teens who sext, but the social implications of sexting can be enormous. Many young people have learned the hard way that pictures they meant to be private quickly become public when recipients show the pictures to friends, forward them to others, or even publish them on the internet. One violation of trust can result in a picture being seen by millions. In Moore, Oklahoma, police are currently investigating an Instagram page that featured nude images of Moore High School students as young as 14-years-old. These girls had sent images to boyfriends or crushes, who then uploaded the pictures to the Instagram account without the girls' knowledge or consent.

Such acts can result in embarrassment and shame as well as being ostracized or bullied by peers. Late last year, a 17-year-old girl in Brazil committed suicide after a "revenge porn" video of her engaged in sex with other minors went public.

Education is key in stopping teen sexting and the social fallout, but adult penalties for juvenile crimes not motivated by exploitive and sexually predatory behavior are not appropriate. Often, sexting is consensual between teens, and a 16-year-old whose girlfriend sends him a sexually explicit SnapChat picture should not be charged with possession of child pornography.

Penalizing impulsive teen acts as adult sex offenses can also have deadly consequences. Last October, a 15-year-old Alabama high school student was arrested for indecent exposure after "streaking" at a football game. What students thought was a "legendary"prank soon turned in to tragedy after he was told an indecent exposure conviction could land him on the sex offender registry. The boy hanged himself one week after his arrest and died of his injuries two days later.

House Bill 2541 aims to prevent similar occurrences in Oklahoma by creating an avenue for appropriate punishment where foolish teen acts have been previously punished as adult predatory crimes. Until the new laws are settled, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney to make sure that you are aware of the current laws and possible defenses.

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