Girls crowd one side of the courtroom. A few boys take the other side.


How many of you, the man in a suit at the front of the room bluntly asked, have sexted?

Of the about 20 teens in the courtroom, only a few don't raise their hands.

Every one else honestly confesses.

A Florida statute passed in 2012 said the third time a teenager sexts — that is, they send a photo of any part of a body that would normally be covered by a bathing suit — the teenager commits a felony.

Although the teenagers in the courtoom were brought in for breaking different laws, Teen Court program Director Lawrence Hills emphasized that felony convictions would mean they'll struggle to find a job, they'll serve time in prison and their families suffer, too.

Before the law, the crimes could be even worse with teenagers technically distributing child pornography, even if they send photos of themselves. The new law only affects minors.

In 2007, 18-year-old Phillip Alpert, then of Orlando, emailed a naked photograph of his ex-girlfriend to some 70 people, including her parents, according to news reports. He was convicted of child pornography and now is registered as a sex offender.

While there have been a number of bullying cases linked to sexting in Florida, Chief Judge Donald Moran said he's more concerned about the everyday sexting teens take part in.

Yes, he agreed, sexting is bad, especially for minors, but if teenagers lose control of their hormones, should they go to prison?

"I want diversion more than I want any convictions on this thing," Moran said. "There are just kids, and it's terribly improper, but they're just kids. I don't want it following them all their lives.

He has only a few months remaining as the head of Jacksonville's judicial system after more than two decades of serving as chief judge. In one of his final administrative orders, he detailed a mandatory education program for all first-time sexting offenders.

The law says a first-time offender should pay a $60 fine and perform 8 hours of community service, which Moran said "doesn't do them a bit of good" without education. The second offense is a misdemeanor. The third offense is a felony.

"You can't expect kids to act like adult. … Hell, the adults are doing it. I've got a congressman, Anthony Weiner, doing it," he said, referring to a sexting scandal involving former Rep. Anthony Weiner.

Moran imagined a scenario where a boy could receive a photograph. Strike one.

The next day, he could show it to a friend. Strike two.

The next day, he could show it to another friend. Strike three, and now the boy is a felon.

Hills said so far he's seen that the kids most likely to sext are still in elementary school.

Fourth- and fifth-grade students with smart phones playing a modern version of "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours."

For older kids in high school, Hills said he hasn't started seeing any cases since the new law, but he expects to see them.

Hills and case manager Kelvin Lane went through a rough draft of the mandatory class with the high-risk teens already going through Teen Court.

"If you knew the law," Hills asked, "how many of you would've broken it anyway?"

A girl raised her hand.

"I would've thought I wouldn't have got caught," she admitted.

Prosecutors might not be lenient, he tells them.

Imagine, he said, that the text was eventually shared with your mom.

Once it's sent, even in a temporary medium like photo-sharing app Snapchat, it's always going to be out there on some memory chip somewhere.

Once you hit send, Lane told them, you lose all control.

Andrew Pantazi: (904) 359-4310