Teens in Texas will no longer be prosecuted as sexual offenders for “sexting,” which is the term coined for sending racy photos of one’s body via cellular phone picture message, or receiving them from friends.
The change comes in the form of SB 407, signed into law June 17 by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, which requires teenagers to make court appearances with their parent and allows courts to require the offenders to complete an education program while allowing prosecutors to pursue misdemeanor charges. Under the former legislation, all offenses involving underage sexters were treated as felony child pornography possession or trafficking violations, regardless of the age of the offender. As a result, minors who sent explicit images of themselves or their friends faced felony charges with dire consequences.
“Studies show that teenage students are increasingly creating, sending and receiving explicit pictures of themselves on their mobile telephones,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a prepared statement after the bill was signed into law. “This practice is not just harmful to the young Texans who appear in compromising photographs – it poses significant legal risks. Thanks to Sen. Kirk Watson’s legislation, Texas has a common-sense law that holds wrongdoers accountable – but does not impose life-altering consequences on young offenders.”
Under the new law, effective Sept. 1, prosecutors can charge teenagers who engage in sexting with a misdemeanor and can request the court sentence minors to participation in an education program about sexting’s harmful long-term consequences, according to information from Abbott’s office. SB 407 also requires the Texas School Safety Center, in consultation with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, to develop an educational program school districts can use to address the consequences of sexting.
“This bill is a timely, thoughtful, bipartisan response to a 21st century legal issue facing kids and prosecutors. This problem must be met head-on with both educational opportunities and appropriate consequences,” said Sen. Watson, who penned the bill. “We’ve given law enforcement an alternative for dealing with juveniles who make a mistake, and we’ve left prosecutors the discretion to pursue felony charges against those who constitute a true threat to our children.”
A 2008 report by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy indicates that 22 percent of teenage girls reported electronically sending or posting online nude or semi-nude images of themselves. In a study released this year, the Cyberbullying Research Center surveyed about 4,400 individuals 11-18 years old from a large school district in the southern United States. According to the survey, 5 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls acknowledged uploading or sharing a humiliating or harassing picture of their romantic partner online or through their cell phone. Six percent of boys and girls said their romantic partner posted something publicly online to humiliate, threaten or embarrass them.