Teen Sexting May Land Parents in Hot Water

Quick show of hands, how many people have sent or received from a boyfriend or girlfriend sexually explicit text when they were teenagers? In the age of iPhones, the answer is probably “most young people.” Sexting is so prevalent, it probably cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. The House has recently passed the “Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017,” (PACEA) a bill which mandates a 15 year prison sentence for anyone who shares sexually explicit material of minors, including the minors themselves. Additionally, PACEA mandates the same 15 year sentence for the parents or legal guardians of the minors who “knowingly permits” the minor to send such text messages.

The proposed bill is noble in its intentions, but the methods are extreme. First, the bill would potentially send minors to prison for more than a decade. A 15 year old girl could find herself in prison until she is 30 years old for the crime of sending a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend. Similarly, her parents could also be spending 15 years in prison if they knew she was sending those photos, but didn’t stop her. Since the prison time is a mandatory minimum, there is nothing the judge or jury can do to change the sentence if any of them are found guilty.

sextingThis bill should draw ire from both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. For liberals, this bill represents yet another example of why criminal justice reform is necessary. These types of bills are likely to target and affect people who make less income than their wealthier counterparts. Although the bill says nothing about income, the wealthy can probably pay a private criminal defense attorney to fight off bogus charges like these. Poorer citizens can only rely on public defenders, who may become overwhelmed with cases like these. For conservatives, this bill should represent a nanny state attempting to dictate to parents how they raise their children. If the parents can’t discipline the children the way the state wants them to, then the whole family will be thrown in prison.

As stated earlier though, the PACEA does have noble intentions. Child pornography among human traffickers and pedophiles is a serious problem. Catching traffickers would certainly be easier if law enforcement could download the traffickers’ outbox and show the jury everything being sent. Since the PACEA does have a legitimate purpose, a few changes could probably fix a lot of the problems described.

How Can Congress Approve this Bill?

First, letting a judge or jury determine the sentence would help our courts separate childish teens from actual predators. If a 17 year old minor is sending nude videos to her 20 year old boyfriend, the parties should be receiving a fine or community service, at most. On the other hand, if a fifty year old man is expecting a 12 year old girl to send pictures of her chest, 15 years in prison might be too light. Mandatory minimums are usually built into law because citizens don’t trust their legal system to give correct verdicts. Although there might be some cases where the defendant gets off too easily, like Brock Turner, those types of injustices tend to be rarer than cases where the mandatory minimum gives too harsh a punishment.

Second, there is no need to charge the parents or legal guardians with sexting. The biggest reason to make parental neglect a crime in this instance would be to prevent guardians from exploiting their children.  Protecting children from their own parents is a potentially worthwhile goal, but the most serious crime would not be the minor sexting. If a guardian is exploiting a child, the government should be checking the parents’ text messages for incriminating evidence, not the kids.

I’ve been very critical of the PACEA so far, but there is one thing it gets right. Although 20 states have passed anti-sexting laws, there is currently no federal law against sexting despite the fact the technology allows sexting to cross state lines. Federal law covers child pornography, but sexting itself is not a federal offense, even if it can be used as evidence of a more serious crime. The PACEA would potentially fill this void, if it can avoid the more draconian methods currently in the bill.

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