'Sexting' bill could change punishment of teen offenders

SALEM, Ore. --A new bill before Oregon lawmakers would give judges more discretion in sentencing juveniles charged with a sex offense that's often connected to teen "sexting."

It's a proposal that would ease up on a trend that one in five teens admit doing. Under the current law, those convicted of a sexting-related charge must register as sex offenders.

Senate Bill 68 would eliminate the mandatory sentencing law for the child pornography law of using a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct. The charge is often used to prosecute those who take graphic photographs or videos of children, but it's also charged against teens who send sexual text messages to one another.

The bill went before a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Some proponents feel the charge is too harsh and that judges should have more discretion in sentencing teens. Defense lawyers say prosecutors use the threat of severe sentences for sexting as a way to get teen defendants to plead to other crimes.

"The district attorneys will you 'oh my goodness, this never happens,'" said Gail Meyer, a representative for Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "But it's on our laws. And it's allowed to happen. And it can have a coercive influence."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon is also crying foul about the existing law.

"There were laws that were enacted to protect children and it could be used against them in certain instances," said ACLU Oregon legislative director Becky Straus.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, argue there's no need to change the law because they don't often charge the Measure 11 offense for teen sexting. Multnomah County District Attorney Don Reese said that over the last five years, not a single person under 18 has been charged with sexting.

Reese is concerned a change in the law would have an adverse effect.

""It is really a solution in search of a problem," he said. "A 17-year-old who created child pornography with a victim 2, 3, 4, 5 years old would no longer be subject to prosecution under Measure 11."

The current mandatory minimum sentence for using a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct is 70 months, or just under six years in prison.

If passed, the bill would also relieve a juvenile from having to register as a sex offender, a requirement for many sex offenses.

Reese said that he would support rewriting the law to ease up on sexting if the proposed changes clearly specified the difference between sexting and child pornography.