DUNCANNON, PA—Contrary to the recommendation of a recent government report advising against prosecuting teens for sexting, a Pennsylvania district attorney is doing just that with a group of teens from Susquenita High School. The age of teens in question range from 13 to 17. Perry County District Attorney Charles Chenot says he wants to teach them a lesson they will not soon forget.
"Take a photograph of yourself or somebody else nude and send it to somebody else, you've committed the crime," he said. The teens have been charged with felonies related to sending child porn via the internet. Chenot has previously prosecuted two sexting cases within the past year that involved a total of ten minors.
According to CBSnews, “The teens at Susquenita High, who all knew each other, were accused last fall of using their cell phones to take, send, or receive nude photos of each other and in one case a short video of oral sex. That resulted in a felony pornography charge for each minor.”
Chenot said the charges fit the crime, adding that a lesser alternative was not available to him. "What would have been the best thing to charge would be something that would have been a little less severe but would still draw these teenagers' attention to the wrongness of their acts," he said.
CBS also reported that there is only one student remaining from the school who has not pleaded guilty to lesser charges, “which would require him to take a class on victimization and perform community service. After successfully completing the so-called ‘diversionary program’ and a period of probation, those juvenile conviction records would be expunged, according to Chenot.”
A Harrisburg civil rights attorney and former U.S. representative, Don Bailey, who is representing the one holdout, questions leveling any charges against the teens.
"Should they be crimes at all?" he asked, rhetorically, before answering the question himself. "This is an overzealous and inappropriate application of the criminal law."
He added that making the students feel like criminals will not prevent them from sexting, saying, “Maybe you should try talking to mom and dad.”
Freshman Rep. Seth Grove (R-York County) agrees in part. He has introduced a bill that would limit the punishment for sexting to a misdemeanor. The bill has passed the state House Judiciary Committee and heads for a vote on the floor this month.
"What we're trying to do is say, 'Let's not charge a felony, let's get a common sense law together that charges a misdemeanor,'" Grove said.
Others think even that is an overreach by the government.
"Why should we criminalize a kid for taking and possessing a photo of herself?" said Marsha Levick, legal director of the non-profit Juvenile Law Center. "There is no problem that needs to be solved."
Ironically, it was just last week that the Online Safety and Technology Working Group issued its government-sponsored report on issues related to promoting online safety for children through education, labeling, and parental control technology. Sexting was specifically addressed as something far less consequential than commonly thought. The report authors recommended "discretion when determining legal actions," preferring instead that school and local authorities pursue "prevention education programs for educators and law enforcement" and a "team approach" to the problem.
The report is available here.