Texas Bill Could Make "Sexting" Punishment Less Severe For Minors

There's a bill in the Texas Legislature that would make so-called "sexting" a misdemeanor for minors.  But, according to lawmakers and law enforcement, the bill could actually provide a second chance for teens who get caught with sexually explicit images on their phone or email.

"If you do as a teenager, we don't want that to follow you the rest of your life.  Then you'll be a registered sex offender for the rest of your life," said State Senator Craig Estes.

Under current Texas laws, any electronic transmission of a sexually explicit image of a minor is categorized as child pornography.  That carries with it a felony charge punishable by up to 20 years in prison, even if juveniles are the ones with the pictures.

"If that happens, that is absolutely a life-ruining proposition," Estes said.

Texas Senate Bill 407 could change that.  Senator Estes says the bill is worthy of consideration because it would make the punishment fit the crime.  The charge against a teen for a "sexted" image of another teen would be reduced to a class C misdemeanor, which is like getting a ticket with up to a $500 fee attached to it.

"The tenor of this bill is to recognize that sometimes a teen may need a second chance," Estes said.

Detective Raymond Perry with the Wichita Falls Police Department, says  teens often feel obligated to "sext" back when a friend sends them an image first.

"Minors, we're trying not to criminalize the behavior.  We're trying to get them educated  before they end up with a serious criminal charge on their record," he said.

Education comes into play in Senate Bill 407, too.  It would require juveniles facing the misdemeanor charge to complete an educational program that includes psychological, social, and legal ramifications of child pornography issues.  Perry says the bill sends the reminder that teens are simply not adults.

"According to this legislation, they get one chance.  If they do it again, then it will be a felony," he said.

Under the bill, a child pornography charge against an adult would still be a felony.  Senator Estes says he in no way is saying teens should sext or that parents shouldn't monitor their kids, and he'll listen to all the testimony presented in Austin.  As of last week, the Committee on Criminal Justice is examining the bill.

To follow the bill's movement through the state congress, click here.

To read the proposed text of the bill in its entirety, click here.