Home Law Proposed Ohio House bill eases punishment on teen sexting

Proposed Ohio House bill eases punishment on teen sexting

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Snapchat on an iPhone. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Ohio Representatives Brian Hill and Jeffery Rezabek have proposed legislation that provides a clear definition of sexting and mandates a diversion program as an alternative to prosecution. 

The Ohio House of Representatives has proposed new legislation that would clearly define sexting and its associated penalty, hoping to reduce inconsistent charges.

There is currently no legislation associated with sexting in Ohio, which means it’s prosecuted differently throughout the state, usually under child pornography laws. Charges for Ohio minors in a sexting case can vary from community service to a spot on the sex-offender registry for those over 15-years-old.

House Bill 355, co-sponsored by State Representatives Jeffery Rezabek, R-43, and Brian Hill, R-97, define sexting as “the distribution of sexually explicit digital material by a person under twenty-one years of age,” and requires that all Ohio counties provide a “sexting educational diversion program” as an alternative to prosecution.

While the legislation would cover individuals up to 21, a minor must be involved, according to Rezabek. Individuals over 21 involved in sexting with a minor would still be prosecuted under child pornography laws.

“If you’re 18 and above, you can sext with whoever as long as the other party is 18 as well. (This bill) doesn’t change that,” Rezabek said.

An Ohio House bill from 2010 sought to keep sexters from being placed on a sex-offender registry, but it did not reach the Senate after critics claimed reducing the penalty would “send the wrong message,” as reported by The Columbus Dispatch.

Rezabek said HB 355 is different because it will not place a limit on charges, but rather provide an explicit definition of sexting, provide a baseline misdemeanor charge and mandate a diversion program.

“We’re not just lowering the charge, we’re giving those first-time offenders and the kids that truly make a mistake an opportunity,” Rezabek said, explaining that there are certain qualifiers for the diversion program.

“We really truly believe the community sees quite a difference between what we’re calling sexting and pandering.”

If an individual charged in a sexting case already has a sex offense charge, has already participated in the diversion program or engaged in coercion, bribery, blackmail or threatening behavior, they cannot qualify for the diversion program and could still be charged as a sex offender.

Hill wrote the legislation after a teenager from his district was charged for sexting and committed suicide.

According to Rezabek, the bill is meant to create a learning experience out of sexting charges.  

“If they made an honest mistake and did something inappropriate, we want them to be able to learn from that and move forward,” Rezabek said.

Instead of automatically receiving a life-altering felony charge, cases would fall along a spectrum with varying degrees of punishments. He referenced middle schoolers in his district who were recently caught exchanging an inappropriate photo and who now face the possibility of felony charges.

“We want to be able to not necessarily convict you,” Rezabek said.

“But we want to basically make sure you understand all the consequences of what is going to be happening with that data that’s out there, that photo that’s out there. Everything that you post, or you take a picture of and you send and you put on the internet, is there for your great-grandkids to see.”

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