DENVER (AP) — A teen-sexting law that has befuddled Colorado lawmakers for years appeared Wednesday to be moving closer to reality after lawmakers in the legislature's lower house passed it unanimously, sending it to the Senate.
The measure to create several new crimes for juvenile sexting passed 65-0 and represents a compromise after years of debate over whether it should be illegal for minors to share explicit photos consensually.
Under current state law, anyone who has an image on their phone of a nude person under age 18 can be charged with felony child exploitation.
But teen sexting is common, and some say prosecutors need a less-severe penalty option for teens who do it because the felony charge means that a sexting teen can end up required to register as a sex-offender.
"Everyone agreed that that was inappropriate, so we set up a measured response with a series of other offenses," said Democratic Rep. Pete Lee.
The negotiations were tricky because there could be a variety of explicit sexts. Both sides agreed that minors exchanging nude photos consensually should face a misdemeanor charges or even just mandatory education to be determined later.
But prosecutors wanted to keep the option of more serious charges in cases where nude image are shared with others against the consent of the depicted juvenile in cases of harassment or bullying
"It really can cause harm to numerous people in numerous ways," said Republican Rep. Yeulin Willett, who sponsored the bill along with Lee.
The compromise bill makes it a crime to distribute sexually explicit images without the depicted juvenile's consent. The crime would be a misdemeanor if the person sharing the image is also under 18.
The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor would be two years in jail under Colorado's "unlawful sexual contact" criminal code. Felony child exploitation is punishable by a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison, plus lifetime sex-offender registration requirements.
The bill also requires schools to have access to some sort of sexting curriculum that schools could use to teach about the topic, though they would not be required to do so.
Dozens of states have amended child-pornography statutes in recent years in response to teen sexting, which psychologists call a common and not necessarily harmful behavior for young people who grow up with smart phones.
Colorado's Legislature started work on teen sexting laws in response to a 2015 scandal in Canon City, where more than 100 high school students were found with explicit images of other teens. Dozens of students were suspended, and the football team forfeited its final game of that season.
Fremont County prosecutors decided against filing criminal charges, saying Colorado law did not properly distinguish between adult sexual predators and misbehaving teenagers.
Lawmakers last year were unable to agree on how to update child-exploitation laws in response to teen sexting.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has not disclosed his position on the bill.