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Are "Sext" Messages a Teenage Felony or Folly?

Published on August 25, 2010
by Nathan Koppel and Ashby Jones

State lawmakers around the U.S. are struggling to decide if teenage “sexting”—the practice of sending nude or sexually suggestive photos by cellphone—is a serious crime, or juvenile folly run amok.

About 20 states have enacted or proposed measures that deal with teenage sexters. Generally, the legislation is aimed at treating minors in a more lenient fashion than if they were prosecuted under existing child-pornography or child-exploitation laws, which include the possibility of prison time and sex-offender status.

Since May, states including Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana and Illinois have enacted laws that impose relatively modest penalties against minors who sext, while maintaining harsher penalties for adult offenders.

While many of the new rules make sexting punishable by small fines and short stints in a juvenile-detention facility, there is still little agreement on what the appropriate penalty is—or whether prosecutors should be involved at all.

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