On Friday, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette published a letter to the editor co-signed by the Juvenile Law Center, the PA Psychiatric Society, and the ACLU of PA. The letter asks a basic question: How does prosecuting kids for sexting protect them? Protection by prosecution?
Here’s the letter:
House Bill 815, which proposes to make any teen sexting a criminal offense, was passed by the state House of Representatives on May 23. HB 815 is being promoted as a measure to protect teens from possible exploitation — through arrest, humiliation and saddling children with criminal records. Protection through prosecution?
This bill would make it possible for district attorneys to prosecute any teen who sends or receives any nude or partially nude photo — even when a photo has only been shared consensually between two individuals.
Lawmakers should rightfully worry about protecting children from individuals who intend to harm by disseminating photos without consent or those who try to coerce others into taking and sending photos, including sexual predators or bullies — something Sen. Stewart Greenleaf’s SB 850 addresses more appropriately.
HB 815 fails to make the important distinction between consensual activity and cyberbullying — two very different actions. It drags teens into the criminal justice system even when there are no victims, and creates a barrier to reporting abuse. If HB 815 passes, even the victim can be prosecuted. Kids who are coerced into sending photos are less likely to report the crime when they themselves may be prosecuted.
Teenagers make foolish mistakes. Does that make them criminals? We need to educate teens about the dangers of risky behaviors like sexting, not prosecute them. Criminalizing consensual sexting does the exact opposite of what it was intended to do. It creates victims. Let’s focus on protecting children from predators, not district attorneys.
MARSHA L. LEVICK
Deputy Director and Chief Counsel
Juvenile Law Center
Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society
The letter also was signed by Andy Hoover, legislative director, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.