November 8, 2010
Moving to curb the growing scourge of ‘sexting’ among teenagers — kids texting nude photos of themselves and others — two top state officials announced plans today to change current state law to better address the tech phenomenon.
Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said they are working together to allow minors to be prosecuted for a ramped-up misdemeanor crime instead of facing third-degree felony charges as they do now.
The felony charges can send youths to a state prison and force them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their life.
“Sexting is real … it is morally hazardous,” said Watson, who said he plans to file a bill making that change for consideration by the Legislature when it convenes again in January.
“One study shows one in five teenagers has sent a sexually suggestive picture by text … and one in three has received such an image. Our laws have not kept up with our technology.”
A 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimated that 22 percent of teenage girls said they had been texted or posed for nude or semi-nude photos.
Officials said the current law that covers ‘sexting’ was enacted years ago, to crack down on child pornography in the possession of adults. It carries a penalty of two to 10 years in prison, and up to a $10,000 fine.
Abbott said that in two cases in recent years, a 17-year-old boy was charged with a felony for texting an explicit photo of a 16-year-old girl, and an eighth-grader was jailed overnight for texting suggestive photos. Abbott said he did not know whether either youth went to prison.
Both officials said the change in law would not go easy on “sexting,” but would instead focus prevention and education efforts on teenagers who might not otherwise how dangerous and harmful the practice is.
Under the proposed change, Watson said the crime for minors would become a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a year in the county jail and up to a $4,000 fine. He and Abbott said probation and restricted cell phone use would be a key component for first-time offenders.
“Studies show that teenaged students are increasingly taking, sending and receiving explicit pictures of themselves on their mobile telephones,” Abbott said. “This practice is not just harmful to young Texans, it is potentially illegal.”