Tennessee legislators passed a new law that reforms criminal penalties for teens caught sending explicit images or video messages, i.e. “sexting”. The bill passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin after sailing through the House previously. Governor Haslam is expected to sign it.
Under the new rules, minor teens caught sending or receiving sexually explicit images can be charged with a status offense in juvenile court, which is commonly known as an “unruly offense”, such as truancy or other mischiefs. It is technically not a misdemeanor, but does involve the juvenile justice system, and can involve a referral to the Department of Children’s Services. The juvenile system would presumably require educational programs and perhaps community service as a punishment for this offense.
Under the old rules, the only option prosecutors would have to address the matter in court would be to charge the minor with a felony sex offense such as possession of child pornography, or sexual exploitation of a minor. Such charges include a juvenile sex offender registry requirement, and would certainly be considered extremely harsh for any kid who isn’t exploiting or threatening another.
There are still questions worth asking here about this entire process.
- What is law enforcement’s role in “educating” kids about the personal and social dangers of sexting?
- When should law enforcement NOT get involved in kids sexting incidents?
Professor Amy Hasinoff, author of the book “sexting panic” is an advocate for keeping kids out of the criminal justice system if the sexting is consensual. There is a risk in having kids not come forward about genuine coercion, threats, abuse, and “sextortion” if they fear they could be facing charges also.
One Senator, Jack Johnson of Franklin, suggested that kids would not be prosecuted if they come forward about the sexting, or delete the images.
However, an amendment offered by Brian Kelsey from Germantown that would prohibit anyone who simply received inappropriate images from being prosecuted with a felony did not pass. Prosecutors rarely want to take any leverage off the table, and likely want to keep the threat of a felony prosecution to get information on the incident, in exchange for reducing the charges.
Teen sexting is a societal issue, not a criminal one. Education in schools and at home to the potential impact and risks of personal and embarrassing photos being distributed online is what is needed.
Kids are going to make impulsive decisions and mistakes, and understanding and exploring your own sexuality is part of being a teenager. And with the constant use of texting and messaging apps like snapchat, the intersection of these two issues is inevitable. Let’s not severely punish kids for making mistakes, or set off a moral panic just because instantaneous communication 24/7 makes it easy to do without considering the long term consequences.