An Arizona Senate panel on Feb. 3 endorsed a bill that prosecutors hope would make young people think twice before sending nude pictures of themselves to their friends or significant others.
The measure is an attempt to curb so-called sexting – sharing sexually explicit photos, videos and chat by cell phone or online. It would make it a misdemeanor for minors to send or keep such images. It would also target images passed around among young people other than the intended recipient.
“There’s enough of this child pornography out there already without having minors contribute to it,” said Paul Ahler, executive director of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, which is promoting the legislation.
The Public Safety and Human Services Committee voted 5-0 on Feb. 3 to send the measure to the full Senate.
It would give prosecutors an option to intervene and hold teenagers legally accountable without filing felony child-pornography charges. Conviction on those felony charges could require a teen to register as a sex offender for life.
Adults with sexually explicit images of minors would still be subject to child-pornography charges.
Arizona joins a growing list of states considering legislation to deal with teen sexting. At least six states enacted similar legislation last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lawmakers in at least two other states – Pennsylvania and Kentucky – are looking at sexting bills this year.
More than a quarter of young people have been involved in sexting in some form, according to an Associated Press-MTV poll released in December.
Seventeen percent of those who received naked pictures said they passed them along to someone else, often to more than just one person. Altogether, 10 percent said they had sent naked pictures of themselves on their cell phone or online.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said many young men who receive nude photos “are collecting them much the same way younger kids collect baseball cards.”
“It’s becoming an almost competitive activity,” she said.
LaWall said her office has seen a handful of sexting cases and struggles to find an appropriate charge that holds teens accountable but doesn’t permanently label them as sex offenders.
Sexting has been linked to at least two suicides. In 2008, an 18-year-old Cincinnati girl hanged herself after she was taunted for weeks by other teens. She had recently sent a nude cell-phone picture to her boyfriend, who later forwarded it to others.
Last year, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself after relentless taunting at her school near Tampa, Fla. She had sent a nude photo of herself to a boy she liked, and another girl used his phone to send the picture to other students who forwarded it along.
Ahler said prosecutors could use the proposed sexting law to send young people to diversion programs or juvenile courts.
Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, a Phoenix Democrat who voted for the bill, said many young people don’t realize the images can end up on the Internet and fall into the hands of pedophiles.
“It doesn’t always just stop on the cell phone,” she said.