Teens are going to text, but some Utah prosecutors are concerned about the nature of some content careening through the airwaves.

In an attempt to define the punishment for the increasingly common behavior of teens texting pornographic images, Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, proposed a bill to modify the criminal code for texts by minors that contain pornographic material. Under the proposal, penalties for sending pornographic material would be a class A misdemeanor for any ages 16 or 17, and a class B misdemeanor for anyone under 16.

For those 18 and above who solicit a person below that age to send pornographic or harmful material could be charged with a third-degree felony. The same is true for repeated offenses by any individual.

The Judiciary Interim Committee did not take any action on the bill and will discuss it again during their September meeting.

The problem of teens texting sexually explicit pictures with their cell phones and sending them to the cell phones of other teens received attention earlier this year in Davis County, after 28 teens from five junior highs and three high schools were investigated.

"The only way these issues can be dealt with is if they are reported," said Troy Rawlings, the county attorney for Davis County. "Prosecutors have to do something or walk away from these cases. Right now the only option is to file felonies or walk, and walking away tells kids this behavior is OK in our county."

Rawlings stressed that by defining these acts as felonies for minors discourages parents and administrators from reporting the behavior of teens, because the punishment is so harsh. Yet, by not applying any type of penalty he feared teens would just "delete and repeat."

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said that he was struggling with the circumstances surrounding teens texting pornographic images. He said it may be just an instance of innocent youths acting inappropriately and a situation parents may prefer to address in their homes instead of the courts.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, touched on the accountability of parents who are aware that teens are texting lewd images but do not immediately report it to police because it may be awkward to report your own child as a sex offender.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, was wary of punishing 18-year-old students with a felony charge because often in high school 18-year-olds may be dating someone who is 17.

Those teenagers "could be doing much more than just exchanging photos," McIff said. "But that doesn't make the older one a sexual predator. By defining them as a sex offender for texting, you are impacting the rest of their life, from finding housing at dorms in college to potential job opportunities."

Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association for Prosecutors, said they are "getting tougher on the situation by lowering the penalty." Yet, the qualms committee members expressed over the bill show it may not be soft enough.

After the meeting Rawlings said he was surprised that the committee expressed concerns that the bill wasn't lenient enough, because most parents have told him it should be more strict.

"My impression was we were wrong in being so lenient," Rawlings said. "The committee had some reasonable and thoughtful questions, and we'll come back with the answers for them."


E-mail: [email protected]