New bill would reduce penalties Massachusetts minors face for sexting

A Massachusetts bill would reclassify sexting as a misdemeanor or noncriminal offense and reduce the penalties that teens can face for consensual sexting.

Sexting, or the exchange of sexually explicit content through cell phones and similar media, has become increasingly common among teenagers in Boston. According to The Milford Daily News, one organization from Bridgewater State University states that up to 30 percent of teens have sexted. Unfortunately, these teens may be at risk for serious legal consequences that don't reflect their intentions or the nature of their actions.

Massachusetts currently lacks a law to specifically address the issue of sexting. Consequently, minors who have been accused of sexting may be charged under laws that were created to address much more serious sex offenses. Fortunately, a new bill seeks to change this by creating distinct and reduced penalties for sexting between teenagers.

Current laws

At present, teenagers who are caught sexting in Massachusetts can be charged with violating the state's child pornography laws. This is a felony offense, and as a result, a conviction can lead to mandatory sex offender registration. This may have various negative impacts on a teen's future living options, public reputation and employment opportunities. Sadly, consent is not a defense for teenagers accused of sexting, since minors cannot legally give consent to the creation of explicit content.

Proposed changes

Earlier this year, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would categorize sexting between minors as a noncriminal offense, provided that the behavior was consensual and did not have malicious intent. The bill would enact the following legal changes:

  • Minors convicted of sexting would not have to register as sex offenders.
  • Minors convicted of first-time offenses would instead be required to enter a diversion program.
  • Minors convicted of second-time offenses would have to complete the same program and pay a fine of $250.

Under this bill, the penalties would be more serious if a minor shared explicit content with the goal of causing another person embarrassment, emotional distress or other harm. This would be categorized as a misdemeanor criminal offense and punishable with community services, mandatory counseling and a $1,000 fine. Still, these sanctions would be significantly less harsh than the ones that teens can presently face for sexting.

Seeking legal guidance

The steep penalties currently associated with sexting underscore why it is so important for minors who have been accused of sex offenses to consider obtaining legal advice. An attorney might be able to help a minor challenge these serious charges on various grounds. An attorney also may be able to reduce the risk that a minor will make needless missteps during the legal process that result in unfavorable outcomes.