Not wanting to enforce harsh penalties on teens who have been caught sending nude photographs, the Ohio House unanimously voted to support a lesser penalty for young first-time offenders. Judges have struggled with how to handle cases of teenagers sharing sexually explicit photographs via their phones and computers, and when such material involves minors, the penalties can easily rise to the level of felony if prosecutors decide to pursue adult charges.
Speaking on behalf of the Ohio Judicial Conference early this year, Greene County Judge Adolfo Tornichio told lawmakers, “Sexting cases are currently treated inconsistently across the state. Some counties already utilize diversion programs, as would be required by (House Bill 355). Other counties prosecute sexting behavior under felony-level pandering statutes, which can result in labeling the juvenile as a sex offender.”
The bill passed during a marathon final House session right before lawmakers take off for a summer break. Bills related to revenge porn and teenage marriage were also approved during the final session.
Rep. Brian Hill, R-Zanesville, called sexting a “terrible” activity and claims to have sternly warned his children about it, but doesn’t “think it ought to end up on their first offense as a felony or be labeled as a sex offender.”
Hill said his bill gives offenders who are 18 or younger a second chance by allowing for a diversion program when they are caught receiving or distributing nude pictures. Under the bill, this diversion can apply if the victim is over 13 years of age and is less than four years younger than the offender. Charges can be dismissed for teens who successfully complete the diversion program.
County prosecutors, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, both opposed the bill, calling it unnecessary.
Executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Louis Tobin, is primarily concerned that a court will find that the new prohibition on possession or distribution of sexually explicit digital material also covers conduct like pandering obscenity involving a minor.
According to Tobin, “Were this to happen, 18-year-old adults and juvenile offenders alike could be subject at most to a misdemeanor ... even if their conduct rises to the level of the more serious offenses.” Tobin says if prosecutors choose to, they can already impose a first-degree misdemeanor charge in lower-level sexting cases.
Erin Davies, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, appreciates the bill’s attempt to address differences between sexting and child pornography, but she also raised several concerns with the bill, and even described it as one-size-fits-all.
During the same session, the House unanimously approved a “revenge porn” bill, giving victims the ability to sue and pursue criminal penalties when a person distributes private, sexual images or video without the other participant’s consent. House Bill 497 will now go before the Senate.
Rep. John Rogers, D-Mentor on the Lake, said “The damage that can arise from this type of behavior can last a lifetime.” In addition, the House unanimously passed a bill prohibiting people in Ohio, in most cases, to get married before they reach the age of 18.
Between 2010 and 2015, roughly 5,000 Ohio minors were married, many of whom were girls.
Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, called current marriage laws in Ohio a complicated web that, in one case, contributed to a 14-year-old girl marrying a 38-year-old man. Lanese says the potential for abuse, human trafficking, poverty, and divorce are substantially higher when a person enters into marriage before they are 18.
Under House Bill 511, a 17-year-old will be allowed to marry if they get consent from the juvenile court and the partner they are marrying is not more than four years older.
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