The Child as Victim and Perpetrator: Laws Punishing Juvenile “Sexting”

The Child as Victim and Perpetrator: Laws Punishing Juvenile “Sexting”

Joanna L. Barry · 13 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 1, 129

Abstract

As penalties for child pornography increase in severity across the United States, new technologies and teenage ingenuity are creating problems that legislatures never considered. In response to the “sexting” phenomenon, prosecutors are charging minors under traditional child pornography laws—originally intended to punish adult behavior—with creating, possessing, and distributing child pornography. These charges carry severe penalties, including sex offender registration, and unfairly punish impulsive juveniles.

Some states, conscious of prosecutors‟ and parents‟ struggle to respond to this behavior, are proposing new legislation, such as supplementing traditional child pornography charges with a new offense for sexting and allowing prosecutors to choose from among the charges. Other states recognize the harshness of that approach, however, and protect teenagers from traditional child pornography laws by defining a lesser offense for sexting that precludes the more serious charges.

This Note analyzes the various aspects of any legislative approach to sexting, including why sexting is a legal issue; why it should be adjudicated in juvenile court; and why the recently enacted statutes of some states fail to adequately protect juveniles from the harsh penalties available under child pornography statutes. Ultimately, this Note proposes that states modify their child pornography laws to specifically address sexting and that such laws should include provisions that retain juvenile jurisdiction, provide educational programs, and shield juveniles from the most severe penalties available under the traditional statutes.