Last week, the House passed a bill intended to punish child pornographers, but the way it's written, teenagers caught sexting would face at least 15 years in prison. When critics pointed this out to the bill's sponsor, however, he insisted it was the government's "moral obligation … to defend the defenseless."
Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson proposed the Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017 "to criminalize the knowing consent of the visual depiction, or live transmission, of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct." In short, it would broaden current laws related to sexual exploitation of minors. But opponents say the bill would subject more people—such as high schoolers who send consensual, explicit photos to each other—to mandatory minimum sentencing. Under current law, first-time offenses for child porn are punishable by 15 to 30 years.
According to a report from Reason, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee called the measure "deadly and counterproductive." A letter signed by her and other dissenters said, in part: "No child pornography offense should go unpunished. HR 1761, however, would subject more individuals to mandatory minimum penalties at a time when the federal criminal justice system should be moving away from such sentencing schemes. While well-intentioned, the bill would exacerbate a problem that is clearly unfair and unnecessary."
The ACLU agrees. Yesterday, the organization tweeted: "The purpose of child pornography laws is to prevent minors from being abused, not criminalize young people for sexual experimentation."
"In Scripture, Romans 13 refers to the governing authorities as 'God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.'"
But Johnson, a Trump supporter, brushed off his colleagues' concerns. "In Scripture, Romans 13 refers to the governing authorities as 'God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer,'" he said. "I, for one, believe we have a moral obligation, as any just government should, to defend the defenseless."
The bill comes in response to a reportedly botched child exploitation case brought by the Department of Justice, in which federal prosecutors failed to convict a man who was accused of sexually abusing his seven-year-old neighbor. The defendant had taken one photo of the abuse, which the Court ruled insufficient evidence to prove he violated the child pornography statute. Reason reports that the Department of Justice pushed federal lawmakers to "make their prosecutorial overreach more permissible."
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Molly Gill, director of federal legislative affairs at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says although HR 1761 covers very serious crimes, the problem is the bill is "incredibly broad in its definition of child pornography production." As a result, she explains to Broadly, "those minimum sentences can be applied to what's commonly called Romeo and Juliet cases, where you have young people who are romantically involved, producing photos of themselves doing naughty things and emailing them to themselves or others. You could have a 19-year-old high school senior and his 16-year-old girlfriend who's a sophomore, they film themselves, and they've just produced child pornography. If they email it to themselves or others, they've just distributed it, and now they'd get 15 years under this statute."
In an effort to fix the language of the bill, lawmakers proposed two amendments: One would have ensured teens would not be punished as sex offenders under this law, and another would have eliminated the mandatory minimum penalties. Both amendments failed to pass.
Revising the bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing would not have taken the 15-year punishment off the table, Gill explains; rather, it would have given a judge an optional sentencing provision. "You're talking about 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds—young people who are being certainly reckless, but do they need to spend 15 years in prison? At that young age, their brains are not even done developing yet. They have all the potential in the world ahead of them and a 15-year prison sentence is the fastest way to kill their future."
She adds: "The idea that we want to be tough on crime and protect our children is fine, but let's protect all of our children.