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Proposed Sexting Law Rejected
09/25/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

The Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee has rejected a proposal to ease criminal penalties on minors who send sexually explicit photographs by phone text. The proposal, which was opposed by a vote of 10-2, would create a separate law against sexting among minors in Maine.

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Maine law currently prohibits the practice widely known as "sexting," and it applies to people of any age. Sending a nude picture to another person is a violation of Maine's pornography laws. It's also a crime to possess the text, not just send it. That means that a teenager found guilty of sexting faces a potential penalty of ten years in prison and a requirement to register as a sex offender for the rest of their life. Rep. Corey Wilson, a republican from Augusta, says the penalty does not seem to fit the crime.

"In my opinion I don't think a minor should be held responsible for sending a picture of themselves or that of another minor. I just think they should be handled differently."

The bill that was rejected in committee is a concept draft so there will be other opportunities for lawmakers to address the issue, but Rep. Mark Dion, a Portland democrat that co-chairs the committee, says the feedback he has received from those in the criminal justice system is that expanded criminal laws will not solve the problem.

"It presents an issue in terms of how young men and young woman interact socially. The conduct is, probably in most light, unacceptable. However the notion of creating additional criminal sanctions didn't seem to work."

Seventeen states have adopted specific, lesser criminal penalties for sexting. They range from fines for the first offense to jail time for repeat offenses. Elizabeth Ward-Saxl, Executive Director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says her group wants the law to apply appropriate penalties where warranted.

"Our concern is not about creating additional criminal penalties it is in fact trying to make sure the criminal penalties that are there and we have depending on prosecutorial discretion to hold at bay, are addressed more appropriately in the criminal code."

Ward-Saxl says Maine prosecutors have thus far brought no prosecutions for sexting , and appear to be exercising discretion in their use of pornography laws. She says sanctions imposed on minors in other states include court- mandated education about the dangers of sexting. Several states have adopted legislation that makes sending and possessing sexually explicit text messages a lesser criminal offense, with a sentence to a juvenile facility instead of a prison or jail. Rep. Joshua Plante, a democrat from Berwick says this debate represents another example of how technology develops more quickly than the laws crafted to regulate it.

"We are using a law that isn't so much outdated but isn't completely reformed to recognize the nuances of technology that have been brought forward so I think if we can't ultimately bring something forward from this bill, I'll accept that. But I think we can at least see if there is something we could develop over the next couple of months."

But Rep. Jethro Pease, a Republican from Morrill believes that like other youthful indiscretions, the problem has to be addressed socially through schools and parents.

"We are trying to change a mindset amongst youth that we all went through, maybe not on sexting because we didn't have it, but we all drove fast and did crazy things with cars, that's youth. And I am not sure that more laws are going to stop it."

The two members of the committee who supported the bill want the Criminal Law Advisory Commission to look at the sexting penalties and make recommendation to the committee for changes. And while the majority of the panel voted against the measure, several indicated they would reconsider their positions if the advisory group recommends changes in the criminal penalties.



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