Protecting kids from predators is the kind of political no-brainer that members of Congress tend to favor overwhelmingly.
House Bill 1761 is just that. Passed by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 368 to 51, the "Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017" mandates a 15-year minimum mandatory prison sentence for anyone who sends a nude image of a teenager via text.
The bill is is designed to close a loophole for child pornographers. But critics fear it will have unintended consequences for the very people it’s supposed to protect.
The minimum prison sentence applies to anyone caught sending -- or even asking for -- a sexual image of a minor. That includes teenagers engaged in consensual sexting, a practice that that former school psychologist and UF Health Dr. David Chesire calls “rampant.”
Recent research backs that up. A 2014 Drexel University study found that more half of all undergrads acknowledged sending sext message as minors -- and that occurred in the pre-Snapchat era. Chesire suggests that is simply a reflection of how much a part of our lives cell phones have become.
“Children begin to explore what it means to be a sexual person in adolescence, and that in and of itself is normal,” he says. “Most children have access to technology, so sexting this would be a normal part of it.”
Rob Mason, director of the public defender’s Juvenile Division, says teen sexting may be impulsive, even unwise, but it doesn’t merit prison time.
At the state level, lawmakers have made exceptions for sexting teens. A first offense is essentially a non-criminal matter, handled by teen court. A second offense is a first-degree misdemeanor, a third would be a third degree felony.
An attempt to carve out similar protections for teens in the House Bill failed.
“No parent wants their kids to sext, but -- they do,” says Mason. “We need to be careful not to criminalize it with a 15-year minimum mandatory offense.”
Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, one of the few lawmakers who opposed the bill, noted that the law also applies to any attempt to obtain an image. “That means if a teenager attempts to obtain a photo of sexually explicit conduct by requesting it from his teenage girlfriend,” he said on the House floor, “the judge must sentence that teenager to prison for at least 15 years for making such an attempt."
Mason notes, “An 18 year old boy who asks a 17 year old girl to send him a picture, it looks like that potentially would qualify.”
Chesire says talking to kids about sexuality and cell phones can be a difficult topic for parents, but says given the risks – including legal ones – it’s a subject they must broach.
“Absent that conversation these kids are really kind of being set up for harm,” he says. We really need to take the role, that if the child is old enough to have a cell phone then child is old enough to have the conversation of what appropriate use of that cell phone is.”
First Coast News reached out to local lawmakers John Rutherford, Ron DeSantis and Al Lawson, who voted in favor of the bill to ask them about their vote. We update this story with any response we get from them.