SD House panel passes bill on juvenile sexting

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) ? A South Dakota lawmaker more narrowly defined “juvenile sexting” on Monday, saying he doesn’t think the illegal activity should fall under the child pornography law.

An amended version of Mitchell Republican Sen. Mike Vehle’s bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on Monday.

In the measure, juvenile sexting includes intentionally creating, producing, possessing and distributing through any computer or digital media a photograph or digitized image of nude minors. The bill makes the act of juvenile sexting punishable by a Class 1 misdemeanor.

The amendment also clarifies that any minor who receives a sexually explicit picture of another minor and deletes it instead of sending it to someone else under 18 would not be charged.

“What we have on the books now for existing law is you either give them a slap on the wrists or you charge them with child pornography and they need to register as a sex offender,” Vehle said. “The problem here is that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

But, Vehle said, sexting isn’t a light matter because of its long-lasting effects. Once the images are on the Internet, Vehle said, “they spread like wildfire” and can land in the hands of sexual predators.

Jesse Weins, professor of criminal justice at Dakota Wesleyan University, said the bill helps the state deter sexting and step away from the “all or nothing approach” to punishment.

“In these cases it’s minors exploiting themselves, but oftentimes they don’t understand the gravity of it,” Weins said, especially because social media adds more outlets for the pictures.

Last year, Vehle sponsored a similar measure but chose to kill it after questions arose on what to do when a juvenile sends the image to an adult. This year, Vehle focused the legislation on minors only.

The measure next goes to the full House for a vote.