Rhode Island Lawmakers to 'Sexting' Kids: You Need Help, Not Jail

Filed under: Teens, In The News


Rhode Island legislators want to teach young people some cell phone propriety. Credit: Getty Images.

Teenagers in Rhode Island who send sexually suggestive photos and videos of themselves on their cell phones are considered child pornographers.

And the law treats them as such. The only option prosecutors have now is to charge young offenders with a felony -- punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Offenders also have to register as sex offenders.

That's why some state legislators want to change the law. They would ratchet down the offense for "sexting" and offer counseling and intervention rather than incarceration and a criminal record.

"With this bill, we're trying to protect young people from themselves -- from the impulsive decisions they sometimes make that can haunt them for years, if not a lifetime, after the fact," Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch tells the Providence Journal.

The proposed bill could be introduced to the Rhode Island General Assembly by the end of the week -- carried by state Sen. Beatrice Lanzi and state Rep. Peter Martin, both Democrats.

Sending sexually explicit photos and videos would become a "status offense" [like truancy and running away from home]. Cases would be judged for their seriousness and offenders would be referred to various service and treatment programs.

"If it's an egregious case of sexting or someone doing this repeatedly, that case would work its way up to a Family Court judge," Michael J. Healey, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, tells the Journal.

The bill defines sexually explicit conduct as masturbation or graphic, lascivious displays of genitals, pubic areas or breasts.

"This bill, with the permission of Family Court, will serve as a sort of signal flare or warning sign that this young person needs to be assessed to figure out if there are deeper causes for this unwise decision," Healey tells the Journal.

Although the bill lightens up on teens, Steven Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, tells the Journal sexting between adolescents should not be a crime at all.

"It's not the role of the government to be criminalizing this type of activity," he adds. "The focus has to be on educating kids on why this behavior is bad. You shouldn't protect them by taking them to court. That's a strange way of showing you care for them."

Related: The AARP Wants to Teach Your Grandparents to 'Sext'

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.