Massachusetts bill: Teen sexting shouldn't be a felony

A new bill proposed this week in Massachusetts aims to stop treating teen sexters like child pornographers. Instead, the law would allow for the alternative of an educational diversion program — like traffic school, only for underage naked selfies.

"Under current law, minors who engage in peer to peer distribution of sexually explicit visual material are subject to prosecution for the distribution or possession of child pornography," said Gov. Charles Baker in the bill's filing letter. "These felony offenses are too severe a sanction for conduct that, while covered by the respective statutes, is not what lawmakers had in mind when they outlawed child pornography."

The bill directs courts to send sexting teens directly into an educational program instead of going through the juvenile justice system, unless the district attorney objects. When prosecution is considered necessary, the bill classifies the offense of "engaging in peer to peer dissemination of explicit visual material" as a misdemeanor and specifically states that it "shall not be deemed a 'sex offense.'" It also directs schools to, as Baker put it, "provide age-appropriate education on the risks and harmful effects of the creation, possession, and distribution of sexually explicit visual depictions of minors as they relate to cyber-bullying."

Massachusetts is just the latest of several states to acknowledge the absurdity of treating teens who consensually swap explicit selfies like sex offenders. In 2015, eleven states — including Florida and New York — had introduced laws that allowed for diversion programs as a punishment for teen sexting, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. Ten had allowed for some other form of informal punishment and eleven had classified it as a misdemeanor.

This legal move toward reason has been prompted by headlines from across the country of sexting teens facing prosecution and even registration as sex offenders. A 2013 study found that 36 percent of state prosecutors who had handled a teen sexting case had filed charges, 21 percent had filed felony charges, and 16 percent saw such cases result in mandatory sex offender registration.

But it seems state laws around teen sexting are ever so slowly entering the 21st century. As Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley said in a press release, "All too often, technology outpaces the law's ability to protect individuals and address harmful behavior."

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