Decriminalizing Sexting?

Hot on the heels of a spate of high-profile sexting cases in New Jersey and the nation, New Jersey legislators are proposing alternatives to criminal prosecution that will effectively decriminalize teenage production and distribution of child pornography

The sponsors say teenagers often engage in the practice out of a psychological vulnerability, not a criminal mindset, and the law should reflect that.

The bills A-4069 (Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden) and S-2926 (James Beach, D-Camden), were introduced in June, just three months after the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department charged a 14-year-old girl with distribution of child pornography for posting nude pictures of herself on MySpace. The girl was ultimately given probation and counseling.

Throughout the country, a wide-ranging debate has been growing about this presumably prevelant practice. Cybersafety Queen Parry Aftab is leading a national effort to make sexting a federal crime while commentator Ashleigh Banfield demands harsh felony prison terms for teens caught sexting. Meanwhile studies show that one out of every five teens has either sent or received nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves or others electronically, according to a survey from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

And speaking of pregnancy, the lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s watershed case against Wyoming County DA George Skumanick recently announced on national television that she is pregnant at age 15. The federal judge in that case issued an injunction to protect three teenage girls from the threat of criminal charges for using their cell phones to take and send semi-nude images of themselves while the case is on appeal to the Third Circuit.

Meanwhile the debate about sexting continues. Is it a crime or just youthful indiscretion? Is technology fostering a new generation of child pornographers and sex offenders? Does sexting at 13 lead to pregnancy at 15? When do victims become victimizers? Schools, child welfare groups and politicians are struggling for answers.

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