Supporters of bills that would change the consequences teenagers face for sharing explicit images described the current penalties as "draconian," and urged lawmakers to adopt an approach that focuses on education.
The Judiciary Committee on Tuesday heard testimony on similar bills filed by Gov. Charlie Baker and Franklin Rep. Jeffrey Roy that each propose to change how state law handles cases involving minors sending and receiving sexually explicit messages. Baker's bill (H 67) would also make it a felony offense for adults to share a sexually explicit image without consent from the person depicted, a practice sometimes referred to as revenge porn.
Under current law, minors who share sexually explicit images among their peers are subject to felony child pornography charges.
Elizabeth Englander, the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, said the threat of a felony and its associated consequences can discourage young victims of sexual harassment from seeking an adult's help if a peer is pressuring them to send nude or explicit photos.
Englander, a psychology professor whose center focuses on bullying and cyberbullying prevention, asked committee members to imagine themselves as a 13-year-old girl facing such pressure.
They'd be reluctant to remove themselves from the social loop by blocking the person asking for photos, she said, and would fear getting everyone involved in serious trouble, with a felony threat hanging overhead.
"Parents will be called, police will be called, and I will never survive the social fallout from that," she said. "My final option as a 13-year-old girl here in Massachusetts under current law is, I can go into the bathroom and lift up my shirt, take a quick photo and send it to the person, and maybe they'll go away."
Englander testified in support of Roy's bill (H 1550), which would allow for juveniles alleged to have shared indecent images to complete an "educational diversion program" instead of facing prosecution, unless the district attorney objects.
The diversion program would provide information about legal and other consequences of sexting, including "the effect on relationships, loss of educational and employment opportunities, and being barred or removed from school programs and extracurricular activities; how the unique characteristics of cyberspace and the Internet can produce long-term and unforeseen consequences for sexting and posting such photographs." The bill also tasks the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with encouraging school districts to implement instruction in media literacy skills.
Roy said his bill "offers additional tools to police officers, but more importantly, it offers that training and piece of education, teachable moments for kids, prior to arraignment."
The governor's bill would also have minors enroll in an educational diversion program, which district attorneys could bypass in certain instances to instead take the case to the juvenile justice system. The district attorneys would be able to decide if a minor should be charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense.
"We need more age-appropriate remedies, and right now it's draconian to charge somebody with child pornography, a felony," Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said. "It just doesn't fit that behavior, so really the underlying part is that it's education and prevention."
Baker's bill, which he also filed last session, would loop sexually explicit images into existing cyberbullying laws, charging schools with providing "age-appropriate" information to their students on the risks and negative effects of creating, possessing and distributing such images of minors.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said the quick pace of evolution in technology brings with it greater risks for cyberbullying and harassment.
"Just speaking as a mother of two teenagers who are 16 and 14, I see how involved they are with their devices and how they use their devices to stay in touch with their friends, to do their homework, to play video games, it's just integral to their life and to their being," she said. "And I think that the real effort, for all of us, has to be on helping them have a better understanding and a respect for what technology should be used for."