House considers penalties for 'sexting'

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By Terry Mills

Last week, as House leaders continued working on the final details of a budget plan that should be ready soon for a vote, the spotlight fell on our Judiciary Committee.

On Wednesday, it approved two bills that have gotten a lot of attention lately, and both deal with our younger citizens.

The first of those tackles a problem that has cropped up in recent years: teenagers using cell phones to transmit sexually explicit images of themselves to their friends. This practice, known as "sexting," has led to many teenagers being prosecuted under child pornography laws.

The committee supported a more measured response. If it becomes law, "sexting" would still be a crime, but the penalties would be fines and community service instead of jail time. Those convicted would be warned, however, that a second offense would qualify them for more serious sex-offender charges.

The other bill to make it through the committee would create a pilot program that would make a handful of family courts more open to the public, something already allowed in many states.

If it becomes law, the program would primarily focus on child-welfare cases, though judges could still limit public information in especially sensitive matters, such as allegations of sexual abuse.

There has been a lot of concern in recent months that these cases need greater scrutiny so that we can be better sure that our youngest citizens have the protection they need. One recent newspaper series documented more than 250 cases of Kentucky children dying during the last decade because of neglect or abuse.

As we wait for the full House to take up these two bills, two others that would also help children in need will become law soon. The first of those will expand the state's psychiatric services so that children with severe mental illness can be treated closer to home.

The second, meanwhile, will have state health officials doing more to increase suicide prevention awareness; the law will also require that all middle and high school students have similar information in hand as well by early next school year.

Late in the week, the House moved forward on three pieces of legislation that would increase government accountability and transparency. The first, which made it through the chamber unanimously on Wednesday, would have the General Assembly's administrative arm work with a consulting firm to study the effectiveness of the state's economic development incentive programs. This would give us a much clearer picture of how good the programs have been at luring and creating jobs in the state.

The next day, the House's State Government Committee built on this effort by adopting two other bills. Those would increase the number of private-sector contracts regularly reviewed by the legislature and also give the public regular updates on exactly how many people work for state government so we can better track its size. This census would include career employees as well as those politically appointed and hired as outside contractors.

If we in the legislature are going to tighten state government's belt, we are going to need this type of information so we can be better sure that cuts are made fairly.

With just a month left before our work is essentially done this legislative session, time is getting short if you would like to let me know how you feel about these bills or any others being debated.

Should you want to write, my address is Room 329B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305, and the Spanish line is 866-840-6574. If you would like to know the status of a particular bill, that number is 866-840-2835. All of these are toll-free.

I hope to hear from you soon.