A bill aimed at punishing child pornographers was passed by the House last week. First introduced in March by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana), the Child Exploitation Act of 2017, was passed with overwhelming support which, on its face, does not come as a surprise. According to a report from Reason, two Republicans and 53 Democrats voted against the bill. Why, you might ask? Protecting children and punishing those who seek to exploit them seems like a universally good thing. This is where it gets tricky. The bill is worded in a way that could send teens who are caught sexting to jails for a minimum of 15 years.
The bill, HR 1761, was passed in response to a poorly handled case brought by the Department of Justice where federal prosecutors failed to convict a man accused of sexual abuse involving a seven-year-old neighbor. The Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence as the defendant had taken only one photo of the abuse. As a result, the Department of Justice, in an effort to not see this happen again, urged federal lawmakers to amend the criminal code to "make their prosecutorial overreach more permissible."
Many politicians and organizations have spoken out not against the original intent of the bill, but against the vague language included in HR 1761. The ACLU tweeted expressing their concerns over the bill saying, "The purpose of child pornography laws is to prevent minors from being abused, not criminalize young people for sexual experimentation."
The biggest problem with this bill is best stated by Molly Gill, Director of Federal Legislative Affairs at Families Against Mandatory Minimums who said that it was "incredibly broad in its definition of child pornography production." She spoke with Broadly about the vagueness of the bill and the other group that would be punished as a result. "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," Gill explained as she expressed her concern about the adverse effects this bill would have on young people. "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."
This bill may be vague about who it targets, but it is not vague when it comes to sentencing. Currently, first-time offenses for child porn are punishable by a sentence of 15 to 30 years. This bill includes a minimum sentencing of 15 years. Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee also made a statement in the form of a letter, signed by herself and others, agreeing with the sentiment but not the execution. "No child pornography offense should go unpunished," she said. "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."
Rep. Mike Johnson has dismissed his colleague's concerns, stating that the bill will close loopholes. The first year congressman responded by saying, "In Scripture, Romans 13 refers to the governing authorities as 'God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.' I, for one, believe we have a moral obligation, as any just government should, to defend the defenseless."
In an attempt to make the language of the bill more specific, two amendments were proposed by lawmakers. The first would ensure teens would not be punished as sex offenders under this law. The second would eliminate the mandatory minimum penalties. Both revisions failed to pass.
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