Okla. considers charges for juvenile 'sexting'

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- An Oklahoma prosecutor told lawmakers Monday he's hesitant about pursuing felony charges of distributing child pornography against juveniles who send lewd photographs of another by email or text messages because there's no option for a deferred sentence and a conviction requires lifetime registration as a sex offender.

"If you did that, then you're looking at an 18-year-old boy who made a horrible mistake, and should not have done what he did, but will have to be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life if we file that charge," District Attorney Greg Mashburn said.

Oklahoma was among 21 states with bills or resolutions introduced this year to deal with sexting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A bill introduced by a House Democrat last session did not receive a hearing in a House committee. Instead, lawmakers are conducting a study of the issue between sessions.

Sen. Anthony Sykes, who requested the interim study, said it's important that harsh penalties remain in place for sex offenders who exploit children, but he hopes to create a new crime that would be tough enough to get the attention of young people who engage in sexting "without basically ruining their lives."

"It's very clear and present and quite abundant, unfortunately," the Moore Republican said.

Mashburn said he has charged young offenders with the misdemeanor crime of "outraging public decency," but the statutory definition of that crime isn't a good fit for juvenile sexting. He said he typically sees at least one major case of juvenile sexting at one of the high schools in his district, which includes Cleveland, Grady and McClain counties, each year. The case typically involves a teenage girl who sends a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, who then sends it to one or more of his friends, and the photo is soon widely distributed throughout the school.

"You could easily end up with 12 or 15 defendants," Mashburn said. "Of course, the girls' parents are irate, and justifiably so, and want to see something done."

Oklahoma City police detective Robert Kemmet, who investigates these types of crimes, said current statutes also hamper investigators because parents are reluctant to help in the investigation once they learn it's possible that felony child pornography charges against their children are possible.

"Obviously when you tell the parents of a 15- or 16-year-old boy that their son is being investigated for distribution of child pornography ... it changes the tenor of the investigation significantly," Kemmet said.

Kemmet said under the technical definition of the statute, even a girl who willingly sends a nude photo of herself could be subject to a child pornography charge. The detective said he's seen a dramatic spike in the number of sexting cases and agreed that such felony penalties are too harsh for youngsters who make a bad decision.

"Water's wet. Grass is green. And kids are stupid," Kemmet said. "But there needs to be an option that gets everybody's attention."

Whatever lawmakers come up with, he said, the law needs to be written carefully.

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