Teenagers who text or e-mail nude or suggestive photos to one another or post them online would be able to avoid prosecution as sex offenders under a bill approved unanimously Monday by the New Jersey Assembly.
The bill addresses the growing teen pastime of "sexting." It allows minors caught doing it for the first time to complete a diversionary program rather than get saddled with a criminal record that could keep them from entering college or getting a job.
Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt of Camden County, who sponsored the bill, said such prosecutions can unnecessarily clog the courts.
"We want to make sure these kids know they did something wrong," said Lampitt, a Democrat. "However, we don't want to send them off to jail. We don't want them to have a criminal record."
The bill would let teens caught sexting avoid prosecution, and perhaps have to register as Megan's Law offenders, if they complete an education program at their own cost.
The courts would decide which teenagers were eligible for the diversionary program. The attorney general's office would develop the curriculum.
GOP Assemblyman Jon Bramnick spoke in favor of the legislation before the vote, saying it was a good bill that "sends a clear signal to the Judiciary that when young people make a mistake, this Legislature is saying, 'give them a chance, give them an option other than a criminal past.'"
Lampitt said sexting has become more commonplace, and has been vexing school administrators, parents and police.
She said 20 percent of teens in one survey acknowledged sharing a sexually explicit photo. In another sampling, 44 percent of high school boys said they had viewed a nude or semi-nude photo of someone else while in school.
The proposal must be approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Chris Christie to become law. Christie, a Republican former federal prosecutor, has not said whether he would sign the measure if it reaches his desk. The Senate has not scheduled a public hearing on the bill.
Prosecutors in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Wisconsin have tried to stop sexting, which is technically a violation of child pornography laws, by charging teens who send and receive the pictures.
Two New Jersey cases from 2009 were dealt with less severely.
In separate cases, 14-year-old girls in the towns of Glen Rock and Clifton were caught transmitting nude pictures of themselves. Police in Glen Rock told students who had received the images to delete them from their cell phones.
The district then held assemblies on cyber awareness for middle- and high-school students. The Clifton girl caught sexting was ordered to complete 6 months of counseling, according to a report in The Star-Ledger of Newark.