New West Virginia law pairs youth sexting ban with education efforts, diversion

Published: Sunday, May 12 2013 10:50 a.m. MDT

The state is trying to pair the rules to education so that young people learn why it's a bad idea to sext and can fix their mistakes without having to register as sex offenders.

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West Virginia has new rules that outlaw sexting by youths. But the state is also trying to pair the rules to education and diversion so that young people learn why it's a bad idea to sext and can fix their mistakes without having to register forever as sex offenders.

The Associated Press reported that the law, signed Monday by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, makes it illegal for youths to make, possess or distribute photos, videos or other media that show a minor in an inappropriate sexual manner.

The charge would be delinquency, but the law directs the state's Supreme Court to create an educational diversion program that, once completed, could lead to having the delinquency charge dropped.

"That program would show offenders the consequences of sexting, including the potential long-term harm on relationships and school and job opportunities," the AP story said.

Unlike some states, youths caught sexting would not be required to register as sex offenders.

That's important to Maureen Kanka, whose 7-year-old daughter Megan was abducted, assaulted and murdered by a neighbor who had previously been convicted of assaulting young girls. Her efforts helped lead to the crafting and passage of New Jersey's Megan's Law in 1994. It forces sex offenders to register when they move into a community. It was never meant to target juveniles who sext, she said, but it does and that's one of the changes she's pushing for in amendments, including providing more support for parole officers.

“We wanted to make sure that wouldn’t happen under any circumstances,” Kanka told the New Jersey Independent Press, referring to making teens register for sexting.

A state senator sponsoring amendments agreed. “No one is trying to defend sexting, but the intention here is to not have them live with the lifelong designation of ‘sex offender,’” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro). “With younger people, you still have the concept of rehabilitation. You don’t want them to make a mistake and live with it for the rest of their lives.”

Sexting charges vary from state to state. The Washington Post carried a story about one case this week from nearby Virginia, where three local teens took videos "of drunken sex acts with fellow teens" and shared them with each other. They each will be tried on charges of child pornography.

"In Virginia, Maryland and many other states, the law has not caught up with the combustible mix of teens, technology and sex that has made sexting an issue. Prosecutors must rely on a patchwork of laws created before the rise of smart­phones to handle such cases," wrote the Post's Justin Jouvenal.

"Some parents and rights groups are calling for a new law that would distinguish sexting from child pornography, create lesser punishments and focus on educating teenagers, not punishing them. But they also acknowledge that young victims can be devastated when embarrassing photos or videos are spread among their peers," the article said.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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