It's still illegal for Florida teenagers to send sexually explicit photos, but they can now avoid severe penalties under a new state law that takes effect Saturday.
Previously, a minor who sent or received an explicit photo could have been charged with a felony and be forced to register as a sex offender, said state Democratic Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, who wrote the bill.
Under the new law, which passed in June, a first offense is non-criminal and is punishable by up to eight hours of community service or a $60 fine. The second offense is a misdemeanor and the third becomes a felony, carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence.
Teens who receive sexually explicit photos could not be prosecuted.
Several states have recently enacted laws to discourage sexting or, like Florida, to ease penalties that were aimed at sex offenders but could snare teenagers unaware a provocative photo could, technically, break the law.
This week in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill that will have first-time sexting offenders enroll in an educational program about the consequences of sexting rather than face felony child pornography charges. A similar law took effect in Texas in September.
The California Legislature has considering several proposals, among them a bill that would allow schools to expel a student who is caught sexting. Another would extend the juvenile court's jurisdiction to cover sexting by minors and force the minors to complete community service. And yet another would force minors to pay a fine of up to $1,000 and complete community service. All are pending.
Critics of the Florida law contend that criminalizing this kind of immature behavior only heightens the risk of losing teenagers to the criminal justice system.
"These sorts of foolish teenager behavior are better handled by parents and teachers, rather than police, prosecutors, courtrooms and jails," said Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
"Our primary concern is this is just another tool to feed kids into the school-to-prison pipeline by criminalizing teenage behavior," he said.
A recent survey conducted by The Associated Press and MTV found that a third of the 1,355 respondents between ages 14-24 have participated in some sort of sexting.
Of the 633 minors who participated in the survey, 7 percent said they had sent a sext.
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