Kanawha prosecutor seeks sexting law targeting juveniles
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Kanawha County prosecutor is calling for legislation to make sexting by juveniles a punishable offense.
According to Chief of Staff Dan Holstein, state law currently does not prohibit teens from possessing child pornography or from sending nude pictures of themselves unless actual sexual conduct is displayed.
That could change if the proposed legislation is accepted by lawmakers. The desired law will come before them in January.
Sending those inappropriate pictures can have devastating effects. Holstein cites the case of an Ohio 16-year-old and a Florida teen who took their own lives after peers shared embarrassing images of them.
The guidelines being pushed by prosecutors and law enforcement officers would make sexting an offense dealt with by circuit judges, who could commit the juveniles to a state facility for up to six months. A second offense would carry a penalty of up to one year in a detention center.
Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants said, "I'd like to think it has a good chance of passing. It has uniform support by many organizations."
Detective Jeremy Burns of the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department worked over the summer on the proposed law along with prosecutors. Along the way, input was given by the FBI West Virginia Cybercrimes Task Force and the West Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
It's supported by the West Virginia Sheriff's Association, the Association of Counties and the West Virginia Prosecutors Association.
But can they convince legislators to add another issue to a juvenile system already burdened with drug and alcohol-related crime?
Plants believes they can.
"It's basically a loophole in the law," he said. "It's a crime for an adult, but not for a minor. Now everybody has a phone with a camera, and this is another avenue for bullying.
"It used to be you got beat up on the playground," Plants said. "Now pictures are exchanged by friends, and after a breakup the pictures still exist and are distributed."
Juveniles don't understand - and many adults don't, either - that once such pictures are posted on the Internet, they are there forever. And law enforcement agencies are getting better at discovering them and using them as evidence.
"Even if a picture was sent to you and you didn't want it, it would be illegal to possess it," Plants said. "Once kids learn they can go to jail - juvenile jail - for up to a year, I think they'll cease and desist.
"Kids have no idea about the consequences of taking pictures of yourself, how dangerous that can be," Plants said, referring to nude or suggestive photos. "Or how badly it can affect other teens."
Parents, he said, might not be aware of how common sexting is.
"I would say four out of five, or at least three out of five junior high and high school kids are doing it," he said. "Parents would be shocked if they inspected their kids phones and computers.
"And if they are not doing that, they better start," he said.
Plants hopes that if passed such legislation would encourage victims of sexting to come forward and parents, teachers, counselors and others to bring it to the attention of law enforcement.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 19 states have enacted bills to address sexting by juveniles.
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at email@example.com or 304-348-4832.