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 been forced to register as a sex offender, said state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, a Democrat, who wrote the bill.
Under the new law, which passed in June, a first offense is noncriminal 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.
"When the child pornography laws were written, they didn't take into account the advances in technology, such as cellphones and computers," Abruzzo said. "The punishment did not fit the crime."
The law allows for teenagers to make a mistake but then learn the consequences of their actions, Abruzzo said.
"At the end of the day, we're not going to ruin your life and label you a sex offender," he said. "It gives parents and the school the opportunity to let them know that this could become serious if you continue."
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 break the law.
This week in New Jersey, Republican 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 considered 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 offending minors to complete community service. 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 such immature behavior only heightens the risk of losing teenagers to the criminal justice system.
"These sorts of foolish teenage 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 Associated Press and MTV found that a third of the 1,355 responders between ages 14 and 24 had participated in some sort of sexting.
Of the 633 minors who participated in the survey, 7% said they had sent a sext.
A 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that about 4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 had sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos or videos.
In the report, author and senior research specialist Amanda Lenhart wrote that teens explained that the images amount to a form of "relationship currency."
"These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other," Lenhart wrote. "And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun."
Florida state Sen. Charlie Dean, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said the law would help teens understand their responsibilities.
"I don't want to make it a criminal issue; I want them to understand accountability," Dean said. "If you step outside the given norm of society, then you will pay a price for that."