MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Studies suggest 40 percent of teenagers have sent or received sexually suggestive photos with other teens. That's something that could currently brand those teens as felons and sex offenders.
A new bill in Tennessee aims to lessen the punishment for sexting, but not because prosecutors don't think it's a big deal. Instead, they say it's because "sexting" is so common, laws haven't kept up.
Teens sending nude or explicit pictures and videos is a disturbing and growing trend according to District Attorney Michael Dunavant.
"It seems to be growing in incident rate; it seems to be a trend that is increasing," Dunavant said.
Adding to the problem is how the State of Tennessee defines the crime of sexting between juveniles when they get caught.
"That is considered under the law to be child pornography," Dunavant said.
That means any minor who takes a nude picture, sends that picture, or simply has it on their phone can be charged with a felony and put on a juvenile sex offender list until they turn 25.
"It's seems heavy handed," Dunavant said.
"Do you think that punishment is fair for this crime?" WMC Action News 5 asked Judge Dan Michael.
"No I do not. As a judge, I do not," Michael responded.
Michael has worked in the juvenile justice system in Memphis for more than 20 years. Since child pornography is the only crime prosecutors can charge for sexting cases, Judge Michael has been forced to make tough decisions.
"As a judge have you been forced to put someone on the registry that you wished you didn't have to?"
"I have," Judge Michael said. "It's very, very difficult. It's very, very difficult."
Parents we talked to were outraged to hear that a simple text could make their teen a sex offender.
"I'm a mother of four sons and two daughters, and I think it would be absolutely ridiculous that any of my children--as juveniles--could suffer such a harsh punishment," Niki Barnes said.
Tennessee isn't the only state dealing with this issue; the WMC Action News 5 investigators found at least 30 states do not have a law pertaining specifically to sexting.
Why has the law around the country not caught up to this technology?
"I think technology is being used in a way by young people that the law never anticipated," Dunavant answered.
Tennessee lawmakers are now writing a bill to address that. The bill would make sexting between two juveniles a misdemeanor, not a felony, and remove the requirement to register as a sex offender. The new law would still enforce strict punishments for adult offenders.
"We believe we have what is the legislative solution to this problem," Dunavant said.
While the change is perhaps years overdue, the remedy could be quick. The bill is expected to be introduced this legislative session.
"That means the governor could sign it into law by July 1," Dunavant said.
But Judge Michael said, as a parent, your duty is to get ahead of this problem.
"I think parents have to step up and recognize the accessibility of pornography," Michael said. "The internet is available to any and all children who carry a smart phone, and it's a simple click away."
He recommends monitoring your teen's online activity, find out what they're doing on their phones and ask questions before that text turns into trouble.
District Attorney Mike Dunavant is partnering with the Tipton County Juvenile Court in March to host an Internet Safety class on the dangers of sexting and other internet issues. The event is being held on March 16, and it's open to teens and parents.