A bill that would create misdemeanor penalties for juveniles who engage in sexting, without subjecting them to being placed on the state sex offender registry, was unanimously approved Thursday by state Senators in Frankfort.

Senate Bill 37, which was sponsored by Sen. Joe Bowen, an Owensboro Republican, makes it a crime for juveniles to "knowingly, voluntarily and without threat or coercion" send nude pictures of themselves or of another juvenile to anyone also under 18. The bill creates a new charge, transmission of a nude image by a person under 18 years of age, and gives jurisdiction over such charges to juvenile court.

A juvenile convicted of the charge will not be placed on the sex offender registry.

"Used properly, we can accomplish a lot with this," Bowen told fellow senators Thursday afternoon, while holding up a cell phone. "But used improperly, it can cause a lot of problems. We as adults should be able to distinguish right from wrong, but we're not the only ones who use this. I'd say (juveniles) use it more.

"They make youthful indiscretions, and make bad choices," Bowen said, which include sending nude pictures. Currently, when a juvenile is charged, the judge has little recourse but to "slap these young people with a felony," Bowen said.

"That's unfair," he said.

Judges are reluctant to charge a juvenile with a felony in such cases, so there are often no consequences for people under 18 who send sexually explicit pictures, Bowen said.

Bowen said he was asked to write the bill by Daviess County Attorney Claud Porter and a school resource officer. "We crafted what I think was a really responsible bill," he said.

Initially, the bill called for a juvenile to be cited for a violation on first offense, which carries a fine, and to be charged with a class B misdemeanor on second offense. But the charges were upgraded to a class B misdemeanor on first offense and a class A misdemeanor on the second offense. A class B misdemeanor carries a maximum jail sentence of 90 days, and a person convicted of a class A misdemeanor can receive a sentence of up to one year in jail.

"There were discussions of... having something more than a fine" to levy against juveniles who send sexual pictures, said Sen. Wil Schroder, a Wilder Republican. With the increased penalties, judges can do more than impose a fine, such as order a juvenile to perform community service, Schroder said.

"We've added accountability to these acts of indiscretion," Bowen said.

Sen. Brandon Smith, a Hazard Republican, asked what would happen to a juvenile who sent pictures they did not consider sexual, such as picture of a younger sibling in a bathtub.

"That's something that could be prosecuted today," said Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican, who is a former deputy commonwealth's attorney. "But the charge today would be a much more serious charge."

The bill defines "nude photo" as a picture of the genitals or pubic area, and any part of the female breast not covered by opaque clothing. Westerfield told Smith that judges would have the discretion to determine the intent of the juvenile who transmitted the photo.

Westerfield said he didn't think an innocently intended photo would result in a charge under the bill, but when juveniles were charged, they would not carry the stigma of being on the sex offender registry "for the rest of their lives."

Smith said he supported the bill, but urged caution. "I just want to make sure we are protecting families and getting the right people," Smith said.

The bill will next go to the House of Representatives for consideration.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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