Granting youth greater leniency is currently a high-profile subject of hot debate within the Sunshine State. For the last two years, Florida lawmakers have considered a statutory amendment to decriminalize underage sexting. Numerous states are wrestling with this “hot” issue.
As the term implies, sexting is the electronic transmittal of sexually explicit content. Cell phones are the most common instruments chosen by minors for this purpose.
Underage sexting is a felony under existing Florida law (and in most other states as well). Therefore, courts must currently treat youthful sexters in the same manner as large-scale child pornography distributors and other sexual predators. Convicted minors incur permanent criminal records, lifelong compulsory sex offender registration, and concurrent travel and residency restrictions.
A notable example involved an 18-year-old Orlando resident sentenced to five years’ probation and mandatory sex offender registration for life. These harsh consequences resulted from the young man’s decision to e-mail nude pictures of his 16-year-old girlfriend to numerous friends and family members after a lover’s quarrel.
By contrast, the proposed amendment would relegate minors’ first sexting offenses to misdemeanors. Maximum allowable punishment would be an eight-hour term of community service or a $60.00 fine. Penalties for second and subsequent offenses would escalate from those modest levels. Punishment for adult offenders would remain unaltered.
Bullying, intimidation, and blackmail are common motivations for the crime of sexting. Thus, under the new law, underage sexters would still face separate enhanced sentences for ancillary offenses such as stalking.
Florida Senator Charlie Dean observed that such issues need to nipped in the bud to avoid youthful pranks from becoming full-blown sexual predation by full-grown perpetrators. Dean further opined that the amendment would serve all these ends – without turning kids into criminals.
Ensuring that punishment fits the crime is a widely accepted legal principle of long standing. Whether youth is sufficient mitigation for establishing allowable criminal sanctions is the question of the legislative debate.
Society already acknowledges offender-specific traits as valid criteria in setting the relative severity of criminal sanctions. Courts and legislators have long recognized perpetrator intent and mental capacity as legitimate determinants of relative punitive severity. Thus, the Florida Legislature’s reconsideration of its previous stance that turned “molehills” of youthful indiscretion into mountains of lifelong ramifications is commendable.
HERE is a link to a list of 2011 legislation in 21 states related to sexting.