Control-Alt-Delete: New law restores commonsense by ensuring teens don’t face felony sex offender charges for sexting

Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Most teens today communicate using smartphones and other connected devices. And, according to numerous studies, 20 percent of teens use their phones to share explicit images of themselves, usually someone they are dating.

Yet in Washington, teens who engaged in “sexting” could be charged with distribution or possession of child pornography— class B felony offenses that carry the penalty of sex offender registration. Hit send, and be at risk for criminal prosecution, prison, loss of financial aid for college, and lifelong difficulties finding employment and housing.

This draconian approach is unfair, and finally, it’s obsolete.

The Responsible Teen Communications Act, signed into law by Gov. Inslee on April 24, replaces harsh prosecution with evidence-based education and prevention. Under the new law, minors who possess, create, or view sexually explicit images of minors over the age of 12 are no longer prosecuted for child pornography crimes. Minors who share (but don’t sell) images of themselves are similarly exempted from child pornography laws.

Minors are still held accountable, but for a misdemeanor that is not a sex offense. And Responsible Teen Communications doesn’t change existing Washington laws that provide ways to prosecute teenagers who engage in harmful behaviors like harassment, voyeurism, indecent exposure, and maliciously distributing intimate images of others.

Washington lawmakers rightly recognize that harshly punishing teens— sometimes for the rest of their lives— for sexting is unfair and counterproductive. Harsh penalties for sexually suggestive online communications discourage teenagers from seeking adult help in cases where there is exploitation or harassment. And teenagers who have created or shared explicit images may be reluctant to seek adult help, out of fear they will be prosecuted.

By taking a preventative rather than punitive approach, the Responsible Teen Communications Act protects teens from both the potential harms of participating in sexually suggestive online behavior and the enduring consequences of a felony conviction.
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