A viral thread about an Alabama teen jailed for sexting illustrates everything wrong with the so-called criminal “justice” system. An attorney who identified himself as working with the Southern Poverty Law Center shared that a 16-year-old was recently in solitary confinement in an Alabama jail.
The specifics of the girl’s case are unknown due to privacy concerns, but the implications were clear. Laws have not kept up with teen behavior or technology.
The attorney also encouraged people to stop electing “tough on crime” prosecutors and judges and for the media to ask more questions of people impacted by the system.
Legislatures passed Romeo and Juliet laws decriminalizing consensual sex between teens close in age to address a similar disparity in the law. In some states, teens engaging in consensual sexual activity were criminally charged.
While laws vary, consensual sexting under 18 is generally treated as criminal behavior. Minors have been charged with sharing their pictures with their peers. There is no age of consent when it comes to sexting.
Such charges can also land teens on sex offender registries, with all the negative implications that labels can bring. Think about it; a 16-year-old can be criminalized for something that would be perfectly legal if they were two years older.
An ACLU blog entry from 2017 challenging a Washington explained why teen sexting should not be prosecuted under child pornography laws. As pointed out in the blog, a president of the National District Attorneys Association urged prosecutors to find other approaches to consensual teen sexting that didn’t involve the harshest penalties.
A 2019 Reuters article cited a reporting finding over 25 percent of teens received a sext, and close to 15 percent said they sent one. According to that article, there were 23 states where teens could be prosecuted with child pornography for taking a naked picture of themselves.
Also, this doesn’t apply to incidents involving adults taking advantage of underage youth or where teens are engaged in otherwise exploitative behavior. Child pornography laws are meant to protect children from sexual exploitation, not punish teen experimentation.
Even where cases are handled in juvenile court, the process can still be harmful, placing teens in a system for a digitized version of teen sexual exploration. Criminalizing teens doesn’t keep them from harming themselves but may limit their future opportunities and well-being.
Criminalizing consensual teen sexual behavior sends a message that teens should be afraid and ashamed of finding themselves. A better approach would be comprehensive sex education that includes
Teens need to have the support and resources, not the book thrown at them. Parents and caregivers need to talk with teens about the potential pitfalls and how to make better decisions for themselves and their bodies.