TALLAHASSEE — Should children who snap racy photos on their cell phones and send them out to their friends be punished as child-pornography distributors or sex offenders?
No, a Florida Senate panel said Monday. At least, not the first time they get caught.
For the second consecutive year, the state Legislature has taken on "sexting," the practice of sending sexually explicit text messages, photos or videos, usually via cell phone.
A bill that has cleared two committees in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives would decriminalize sexting as a first offense for children who are under age. A similar measure passed unanimously in that chamber last year, but stalled in the House.
"It's an issue we need to address with our young people and our parents and our schools," Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican and the bill's sponsor, said earlier this month. "These kind of issues get out of hand, so we might as well nip it in the bud and stop it."
The proposed legislation centers on provocative photos and videos owned and disseminated not only via cell phones but also through any "electronic data transmission," which would include computers.
The first sexting violation for a minor would be punishable by a $60 fine or eight hours of community service, with escalating charges and penalties for each additional offense. Children could still be prosecuted for other offenses that could be linked to sexting, such as stalking. And the more forgiving rules would not apply to adults.
State laws across the country have struggled to catch up with technology as more and more children own or have access to gadgets such as cell phones that let them disseminate images or videos of themselves nude or partially nude. Children sometimes use the compromising photos and video to bully their peers.
In Florida, past underage "sexters" have been charged as felons — on the same level as distributors of child pornography, for example — and forced to register as sex offenders and comply with residency restriction limitations. In 2007, an Orlando 18-year-old was sentenced to five years of probation and forced to register as a sex offender after e-mailing a nude photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend to her friends and family after the couple argued.
SB 888 — with HB 75, sponsored by state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellingon — would downgrade the level of the crime, a move state public defenders support. The approach acknowledges that teenagers who make a poor judgment call should not be treated as serious criminals.
"We're not out to make criminals out of children, but there should be an accountability for their behavior," Dean said, "and their parents should be involved with helping us."