State lawmakers have put the brakes on a measure to better outlaw "sexting" text messages between teens, hoping more discussion will produce the right solution.

State lawmakers have put the brakes on a measure to better outlaw "sexting" text messages between teens, hoping more discussion will produce the right solution.


House Bill 4583 aims to solve dilemmas over how to address "sexting" – where teens send each other racy text messages on their cell phones – by actually reducing the punishment for some parts of it.


Right now, sending and requesting "sexting" messages are considered Class 1 felonies that would label otherwise innocent children as sex offenders.


A House committee considered the measure Thursday. But no vote was taken so that lawmakers could receive input from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.


The bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville, said the snag is how to deal with teens sending or requesting these messages – teens that may not know what they are getting into. The answer could be quick intervention or a special program.


"The bottom line is that education – no matter how much we do – can come from many shapes and sorts," she said.


"Sexting" has quickly moved to the forefront of troubling issues for parents and school administrators. State Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Mount Sterling, called the issue a widespread problem throughout the country.


According to a December Pew Research Center poll, one in seven teens have sent or received a "sexting" text message.


"It's a sensitive balance because we don't want to disrupt Romeo and Juliet, but we want to make sure that either Romeo or Juliet isn't someone who has the intent of sending it to someone who's 45 years old to get it out on the Web as pornography," Senger said.


The bill would break down "sexting" into three categories: sending photos, requesting photos and distributing photos. Each category would come with its own punishment, with misdemeanors for sending and requesting and a Class 4 felony for distributing.


Not every "sext" will lead to such a result, Senger acknowledges.


"You're not going to catch every 'sexting' message," Senger said. "This is not a function of going out and catching people per se. This is really a function of education to say that when you do this, it is there and will be there forever."


Richard Wistocki, the juvenile investigator for the Naperville police department who helped write the measure, said the goal is to educate children who may not know they are committing a serious crime.


"We need to stop the dissemination of these photos throughout the world," he said. "It's a hot commodity for child pornographers to get homemade child pornography right now. How do we do this? Educate our kids not to do it and when they do, we need to educate them further and not make them sex offenders."


Senger said the law, which hasn't been updated since 1961, is outdated because of technology. Teens were sending love notes in 1961, while now they are sending text messages.


But she said several prosecutors are hesitant to back a bill that would weaken the state's stance on child pornography.


"We need to craft something that doesn't do that either," Senger said.


Others say the debate needs to slow down in order to get the right approach.


James Ferg-Cadima, legal counsel for the ACLU, said the criminal justice forum is not the right place to start on "sexting."


"We have people from all over the spectrum from state's attorneys all the way to school groups, which are now starting to get interested in this," Ferg-Cadima said. "We need to find out what is actually going on and draft something that addresses those who are truly intending harm."


Brian Feldt can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or brian.feldt@sj-r.com.