After a teenage girl in Pennsylvania was slapped with felony child-pornography charges for posting a video on Facebook that showed two other teens engaging in a consensual sex act, a judge this summer dismissed the charges, calling them “an overreaction by law enforcement.”
Judge Robert L. Steinberg of Lehigh County said teens who text nude images of other teens should not face such charges and urged state lawmakers to create a more appropriate law.
He got his wish.
The state House and Senate approved a bill Oct. 17 designed to punish minors with less severe options than under current law for “sexting,” or sending nude photos of themselves or other teens who are 12 or older, by cellphone or other electronic transmission.
The new measure would make such acts a summary offense or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances, rather than the felony child-pornography charge currently filed in those cases. The bill awaits the signature of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. His approval is likely, administration spokeswoman Janet Kelley said.
Though approaches vary from state to state, at least 19 states have enacted bills to address youth sexting since 2009, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver. Some states simply issue a warning for sexting, while other states require community service or counseling programs for those involved, said Pam Greenberg,a senior fellow in the NCSL’s Legislative Information Services Program.
“The balancing act is finding a way to deter kids from sexting and still not punishing them in the same way an adult would be punished,” Ms. Greenberg said.
Under the new Pennsylvania measure, a minor who possesses or distributes a sexually explicit image of another minor who is 12 or older could be charged with a second degree misdemeanor for sending sexually explicit photos or videos. If the person in the photo or video is under 12, the teen could still be charged with a felony child-pornography offense.
To get a charge under the legislation expunged, a minor could be ordered to take part in an educational programdesigned to deter teens from sexting.
Sexting has been an issue throughout the country, although the prevalence of sexting among teenagers is unclear. A 2011 study from the University of New Hampshire in Durham found that roughly 1 percent of teens were engaged in sexting, compared with 7 percent in a 2011 Associated Press/mtv survey and 28 percent in a 2012 study from the University of Texas-Medical Branch at Galveston.
In Pennsylvania, authorities in 2008 threatened to file child-pornography charges against dozens of students at Parkland High School in Allentown after nude images of underage girls circulated on cellphones. No one ended up being charged.
“We recognize that this is an issue among teens, and we want to fight the issue, but not have it impact them for the rest of their lives,” said Shawn Wagner, the president of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and a proponent of the bill.
The bill would punish teens without subjecting them to lifelong consequences, such as having to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law, which makes information about registered sexual offenders available to the public through the Internet.
Editorial Intern Mike Bock contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2012, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as Pa. Moves to Ease Penalties for Minors Who Engage in ‘Sexting’