House, Senate legislation targets sexting
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Right now a teenager can send another teen a nude picture, post the picture on the Internet or print copies and put them in lockers at school and it's not a crime
That's a problem, and one Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants says is getting worse.
Plants hopes legislation to be proposed today in the state House and Senate will provide ramifications if, for example, a boyfriend and girlfriend exchange inappropriate pictures and then get in a fight.
"Well then there's a breakup, and all of a sudden those inappropriate pictures are on Facebook or they're being passed around the schools," Plants said Friday in a phone interview.
"It's a new form of bullying in the tech age," he continued.
The legal system lets Plants prosecute adults who send nude pictures to minors. But it lacks teeth when it comes to photographs of minors exchanged between minors, he said. It can fall under harassment, he said, but he wants clearer standards and consequences for the growing problem.
If the measures become law, "sexting" - the act of sending sexually explicit photographs through digital communication - between minors could be a misdemeanor or felony, Plants said. Each situation would be taken on a case-by-case basis, and would be handled in juvenile court, he said.
It's up to a juvenile court judge to decide punishment in those cases, but Plants' law could send offenders to a correctional facility for up to one year.
The intent is not to send children to jail, Plants said. Because it would be handled in juvenile court, the records would be sealed and would not follow a person for the rest of his or her life. But there needs to be some sort of legal deterrent for the activity, Plants said.
"Right now there's no consequences for putting these images up on the Internet, or sending them to all of their friends," Plants said. "That blatant activity will stop."
Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, is scheduled to introduce a bill today that would address Plants' concerns. On Friday, Palumbo said he knows local prosecutors say sexting is a problem, and there's a "hole in the law right now."
He isn't so sure about the idea of sending children to jail over an offense, though, and doesn't think a measure that stresses time in a correctional facility would make it out of the Senate. If the bill is amended - he said he doesn't think senators will agree with the bill as it stands - it would improve its chances of eventually becoming law.
"I think there's a decent chance that this bill will make it out of the senate. What I don't know is how wide spread of an issue this is across the state," Palumbo said.
If prosecutors across the state share Plants' concerns, Palumbo thinks there's a better chance something addressing sexting between minors can make it into code.
Del. Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, is scheduled to introduce a bill similar to Palumbo's today in the House.
Earlier last week Del. Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, introduced a bill that takes a different approach to sexting and minors. Poore's bill encourages the Attorney's General office to create an "educational diversion program" for minors accused to sexting. If the alleged offender successfully completes such a program, that person could avoid prosecution, according to Poore's bill.
The program would only be offered to minors that did not have a track record of offenses and did not know the actions they were taken were illegal, according to the text of the bill. Plants said right now it's not illegal for a minor to receive a nude photo of another minor, and his law would not attempt to make it illegal. He advises minors to delete such images, but situations typically only come to his attention when there's mass distribution involved.
Plants said he had not seen Poore's bill, but would support the idea of a diversion program. He said he doesn't necessarily want to see children go to jail for sexting, and he prefers finding other ways to help troubled teens. It's about having the ability to ensure minors are in a safe environment, and that takes a law, he said.
"If I don't have a violation of the law to begin with, there's nothing I can do. As of now, there's just nothing against the law," Plants said.
Poore's measure, House Bill 2357, is co-sponsored by Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion; Assistant Majority Whip Clif Moore, D-McDowell; House Judiciary chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and vice chair Tim Manchin, D-Marion; judiciary minority chair John Ellem, R-Wood, and fellow Republican Bill Hamilton of Upshur County; and Democrat delegates Charlene Marshall of Monongalia County and Linda Longstreth of Marion County.
Beth Ryan spokeswoman for new Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, said Morrisey's office is reviewing Poore's bill and will "keep an eye on it" during the session.