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By Brian Heuberger

On April 5 a teen sexting bill was rejected by the Colorado House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee.

The prevalence of teen sexting cases throughout Colorado has increased public awareness of the phenomenon and has generated contentious debates regarding how prosecutors should handle the cases.  The teen sexting bill intends to downgrade the offense to a misdemeanor.

The proposal was denied by the committee in a narrow 7-6 decision, and now supporters of the legislation are maneuvering to reintroduce the bill for another vote.

Teen Sexting in Colorado

Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post.

Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post.

The teen sexting issue erupted in Colorado after a highly publicized incident in Canon City, where hundreds of middle school and high school students began trading and circulating nude photos of one another.

Currently, teen sexting in Colorado is categorized as a child pornography felony.

The result: Pressing charges against juveniles for sexting offenses imposes the kids with the excessive punishments of having criminal records and being registered as sex offenders. Because the only option for prosecutors was to charge the Canon City students with sex offender felonies, the prosecutors refrained from pressing any charges against the students.

Colorado House Rep. Yeulin Willett sponsored House Bill 1058 in an attempt to alleviate this issue. The bill would reduce teen sexting to a misdemeanor, establish consensual sexting cases as petty offenses and provide prosecutors with more alternatives to press charges against offenders.

The bill gives two different levels below a felony,” says Rep. Willett. “The first is a juvenile misdemeanor, and below that, in what has been termed a consensual relationship, is a juvenile petty offense.”

Response to House Bill 1058

The bill has stimulated harsh criticism from many opponents who argue that the bill is too extreme. Consensual sexting has been a key point of the debate, as many opponents assert that consensual sexting among juvenile partners should be entirely legal.

Supporters of the bill refute this argument and contend that consensual teen sexting should be illegal to protect children from being victimized.  

Teen sexting could be a consensual situation,” says Rep. Willett, “but the pictures are forever and permanent.”

He continues, “You’re also creating a pool of kiddie porn that the really bad guys can get their hands on if they figure out how to hack it or if it winds up on the internet.”    

Another primary criticism of the bill is that the legislation could allow prosecutors to punish the victims. However, supporters claim that it is unprecedented for District Attorneys (DA) to prosecute the victims of teen sexting cases.  

It’s very rare that victims are ever going to be charged,” says Rep. Willett. “If the young girl gave a picture to her boyfriend in a consensual relationship, and then they split up and he shared it, the DA would charge the boy because that’s the greater offense.”

The Future for House Bill 1058

The Colorado House of Representatives. Photo: Denver Post.

The Colorado House of Representatives. Photo: Denver Post.

On April 5 the teen sexting bill was brought before the committee. The committee heard testimony from both sides, rejected the bill in a close 7-6 decision and provided a method sponsors can use to reintroduce the bill in the future.  

The sponsors of the bill are currently modifying details to sway the vote in their favor. For instance, the sponsors are incorporating a petty offense diversion program into the bill that would permit the juvenile offenders to receive counseling and to have the offenses immediately expunged from their records.  

There will be an automatic record expungement on that petty offense,” says Rep. Willett. “The police will give them a little card to send them right to counseling or education, and so it’s a total diversion program.”

The sponsors are also planning on reintroducing the bill for another vote before the spring session ends. “I’m working right now on getting it back on the schedule of the same committee that heard it,” Rep. Willett says. “We’ll see what happens there, and hopefully, I can get it moved to Judiciary or maybe they’ll vote it to the House floor.”

Government and law enforcement agencies are constantly adjusting to the technological developments and cell phone innovations of the recent decade. Now Colorado officials must determine how to address the teen sexting phenomenon. Supporters of House Bill 1058 believe that downgrading teen sexting to a misdemeanor can enable prosecutors to more effectively charge offenders, deter teen sexting behavior and protect juveniles from being victimized.  

I am very confident that between this, further education and public awareness, teen sexting will go way down, and so it’s a good tool to reduce the behavior,” says Rep. Willett. “If we save one girl from harm because of being victimized by this, then that’s reason enough.”