Oklahoma Hearing Aimed at Shaping 'Sexting' Measure
October 30, 2009 - 12:46 PMTeenagers may think it's harmless, but sending sexually explicit pictures and messages over cell phones can lead to emotional problems and criminal charges that will affect them for the rest of their lives, criminal justice officials said.
Investigators and prosecutors on Thursday warned of the dangers of electronically transmitting racy images and words at a hearing organized by Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, into the practice of "sexting," distributing nude or seminude self-portraits over cell phones.
"Sexting alone just by itself will land a kid in jail," Pittman said. "They are not aware of the implications, the consequences. It's their future that we're trying to save."
Pittman said she hopes to craft a bill for the Legislature to consider next year that will clarify language in existing criminal statutes that could be used to prosecute teens who send or receive naughty images of themselves or others.
"What I'm trying to do is be proactive," Pittman said. Major concerns are the long-term consequences of filing a felony child pornography or indecent exposure charges against a minor and requiring them to register as a sex offender.
"We want to educate our children on the very real effects," Pittman said.
Kim Sardis, juvenile services division director for the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, said at least 10 cases have been referred to state juvenile courts since 2005 involving teens accused of distributing or possessing child pornography. Three of the cases involved the distribution of images over a cell phone.
Trent Baggett of the Oklahoma District Attorney's Council said he is not aware of any "sexting" cases prosecuted in adult courts. But the practice has led to child pornography charges against teens in several states.
Several states have adopted legislation to define and prohibit "sexting." Pittman said a law went into effect in Colorado this year that adds obscene text messages to the list of acts that can be prosecuted under state child pornography and harassment statutes.
In Vermont, a new law permits prosecutors to send teenage "sexting" cases to juvenile courts to eliminate the stigma of child pornography convictions.
Earlier this year, three Pennsylvania high school girls who sent seminude photos and four male students who received them were all hit with child pornography charges. In Ohio, a 15-year-old high school girl faced similar charges for sending her own racy cell phone photos to classmates.
"Obviously, they should be held accountable," Baggett said of teens who engage in "sexting." But prosecutors need to handle felony cases involving teens appropriately and recognize the long-term consequences of a conviction.
Information distributed by Baggett indicates that nationally, 9 percent of children aged 13 have shared nude photos with cell phones or other electronic means and 24 percent of 17-year-olds have engaged in the practice. A total of 20 percent of all teens acknowledge sharing nude photos.
Jennifer McLaughlin of the Oklahoma Coalition against Domestic Violence said the suicide of an Ohio girl last year was attributed to the bullying and humiliation she experienced after she sent a nude cell phone photograph to her boyfriend at the time, who later forwarded it to several other girls.
Heath Merchen, a former prosecutor who is now legal counsel for the Oklahoma Education Association, urged parents to check their child's cell phone for inappropriate images or texts.
"If you don't, the consequences are severe," Merchen said. "Reputations are destroyed. Kids' lives are destroyed."
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