NJ Law Will Allow Teens Caught “Sexting” To Avoid Criminal Prosecution

TRENTON – Juveniles caught sending sexually explicit photographs via their cell phones will face intensive education rather than criminal prosecution under a bill now signed into law and sponsored by Assemblywomen Pamela Lampitt, Celeste Riley and Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

The law (A-1561) aims to curtail a practice known popularly as “sexting,” a problem that has increasingly perplexed parents, school administrators and law enforcement officials because of ambiguities in child pornography laws.

“This takes a practical approach to a confounding problem, rather than slapping a one-size-fits-all punishment on teenagers whose motives may be entirely different than adults that face similar charges,” said Lampitt (D-Camden). “Teens shouldn’t necessarily be treated as criminals when they’re at that age where they don’t have a full understanding of the ramifications of their actions. Young people – especially teen girls – need to understand that sending inappropriate pictures is not only potentially illegal, but can leave an indelible mark on them socially and educationally. We need to create a path that places education and forgiveness before arrest and prosecution, and that’s what this law does.”

According to a 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, roughly one-in-five teens – including 11 percent of girls aged 13 to 16 – have sent a nude or semi-nude picture or video of themselves to friends or posted one on a Web site.

“Educating young people and getting them to change their behavior must be our focus,” said Riley (D-Salem/Cumberland/Gloucester). “Those conversations need to happen between a parent and child and among peers. These measures can spark those conversations or, in the worst case, ensure that kids who do make a mistake don’t pay for it in court.”

The law creates an educational program as an alternative to prosecution for juveniles who otherwise could be charged with a criminal offense for posting or sending sexually suggestive or sexually explicit photographs. Participants will learn about the potential state and federal legal consequences and penalties for sexting as well as its personal costs – including the effect on relationships, its impact on school life and the loss of future employment opportunities.

County prosecutors will determine who could be admitted into the program and juveniles who successfully complete it will avoid trial.

“This has become a growing problem because technology has changed so rapidly, making it hard for parents to keep up and for teens to understand the ramifications of this behavior,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “This law creates a nuanced approach to the issue, one that recognizes that kids will do foolish things while also creating a serious mechanism to address the problem.”

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