Oftentimes, when lawmakers don’t know how to make sense of something, or it scares them, they criminalize it.
Exhibit A: sexting.
Sexting is very common among teens, frequently referenced in pop-culture, and perhaps a mystery to people who didn’t grow up with a cellphone. Some may call it “unwise.” Friends may steer friends away from doing it. But one thing is for sure, sexting should not be criminal.
After all, if teenagers decide to engage in some racy sexting, is it really the government’s place to punish them? If a photo or text conversation goes viral, sometimes the young person whose privacy was violated is punished in the court of law, which is just plain wrong. And all parties in these situations are young people who may not have the judgment to make the best decisions — so should they have the rest of their life ruined because of a bad decision?
The answer should be no.
Enter Ohio lawmakers, a group of (mostly) angry older white guys who are shaking their fists and bemoaning kids today while doing little, if anything, to understand the millennial generation. On May 22, members of the Ohio House Criminal Justice Committee passed a “teen sexting ban.” This misguided and over-the-top legislation proposes to “ban sexting” for anyone under the age of 19. The full House is expected to vote on this bill soon.
This legislation results in numerous, negative ramifications for young people. It even goes so far as to create a brand new crime, “possession of sexually explicit material” that any kid caught sexting could be charged with. With the creation of this new crime, judges have the option to send young people to eight hours of “criminal service,” where both the legal and non-legal consequences of “sexting” will be explained to them.
The stigma behind any criminal conviction is severe, but to tar these kids as sex offenders could quite literally ruin their lives. This charge could make it impossible for young people to access opportunities for education, housing, and employment for years to come.
Lawmakers have said they are creating this new crime to give judges and prosecutors an option not to charge young people with more serious crimes, such as a felony offense. But there’s a problem with that: Judges and prosecutors aren’t required to do what these legislators might want. Instead, they can simply continue to charge kids with felonies for sexting and maybe throw in this new charge as well for good measure.
Here’s one idea: If we don’t want kids to be given harsh penalties for sexting, how about we pass legislation that explicitly says that they cannot be given those serious criminal charges?
One other idea — since we’re giving out free advice — don’t you think a young person would better benefit from this information if it were presented to them in just about any other way? Most teenagers are adverse to lectures from authority figures to begin with, especially if it’s about a topic as uncomfortable as their bodies and their sexual expression, which has been criminalized to boot. We absolutely should be talking with young people about sexting and sexual health altogether, but punishing them and lecturing at them is not an effective way to do it.
Teens can get hurt in relationships, and they can end badly. Young people should guard their privacy and be aware of the risks of sexting. If one party violates another person’s trust by spreading pictures or screenshots of text messages, they should utilize the civil courts to stop the person’s misbehavior. But feeding young people into the criminal justice system where they could be branded for life will accomplish nothing but ruining young people’s lives for conduct that should never be criminal to begin with.