DENVER (AP) – A fiery debate on finding a new legal ground to address teen sexting has fallen apart in Colorado.
A committee in the state House voted 7-6 on Tuesday against the proposal to ratchet back criminal penalties for teens exchanging nude images of themselves. The vote means that even consensual teen sexting remains a felony charge that leads to lifelong requirements to register as a sex offender. Only a handful of such cases have been filed in state history, with no convictions.
The proposal would have given prosecutors a new crime to charge minors with, either a misdemeanor or a petty offense.
Supporters said that a new crime of teen sexting would send the message that sexting is wrong, but not a felony with lifelong consequences.
“It’s a gentle hand to be able to say to kids, ‘Don’t abide in this behavior because it’s only going to hurt you in the end,’ ” Republican Rep. Tim Leonard said.
But Democrats voted against the bill, saying they worried that making the crime less serious could mean that some kids exchanging consensual nude images could still be drawn into the criminal justice system.
Opponents cited statistics about how common teen sexting is. “Is it irresponsible? Yes. But should it be criminal? I don’t think so,” Democratic Rep. Dominick Moreno said.
Others compared sexting to getting a tattoo – something adults once warned would ruin a young person’s chances of future success, only to find societal standards change.
The measure could still become law. That’s because lawmakers on the closely divided committee voted to make it easier to reconsider the bill later. The chairwoman of the committee noted that she is asked two or three times a day about the sexting bill, saying public interest is intense.
At least 20 states have adopted sexting laws with less-serious penalties, mostly within the past five years. Eleven states have made sexting between teens a misdemeanor. In some of those places, prosecutors can require youngsters to take courses on the dangers of social media instead of charging them with a crime.
Colorado’s bill was prompted by a scandal last year in Canon City, where more than 100 high school students were found with explicit images of other teens. Dozens of students were suspended, and the football team forfeited the final game of the season.
Fremont County prosecutors ultimately decided against filing any criminal charges, saying Colorado law doesn’t properly distinguish between adult sexual predators and misbehaving teenagers.
– By KRISTEN WYATT, AP Writer
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