Reforms passed to protect teens from ‘sexting’ prosecution

New law protects teenagers from felony prosecution and promotes prevention and intervention

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the Responsible Teen Communications Act on April 24.

The act protects teenagers from felony prosecution for distribution or possession of child pornography when they make explicit messages and images of themselves and share them with peers. The act also invests in evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies.

“Washington has a responsibility to protect its young people — and that includes protection from the life-long consequences of unnecessary prosecution,” said Michele Storms, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington’s executive director.

“This bill addresses irresponsible teenage behavior in a more productive way.”

A majority of teenagers use cell phones, and according to numerous studies, at least 20 percent of them use their phones to exchange explicit images of themselves, mostly with someone they are dating. This exposes a large number of young people to the threat of criminal prosecution for behaviors that could be effectively addressed in more productive ways, according to an ACLU press release.

Prior to this bill, teenagers who sent or received sexually explicit messages and images could be charged with distribution or possession of child pornography — a felony conviction that would result in a criminal record, sex offender registration and life-long barriers to housing, employment and education.

The Responsible Teen Communications Act replaces those penalties with “an investment in developing evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies that educate tens to make responsible decisions,” according to the press release. It also retains misdemeanor-level criminal penalties for youth who share images of others.

“Young people will make mistakes, but a teen who sends a naked selfie should not suffer the same consequences as a child pornographer,” said Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor.

“By bringing state law up to date with technology, we are protecting teens from the unintended consequences of a law meant to keep them from harm, while ensuring that malicious behavior can still be punished appropriately.”

Many stakeholders advocated for the passage of SHB 1742, including the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Team Child, the Washington Defender Association, the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Justice for Girls Coalition.