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Ohio lawmakers want to ban sexting up to age 21

(September 22, 2017) — The legal ramifications of sexting, or the transmitting or nude or seminude images of oneself, can follow a person years after they hit send.

House Bill 355, sponsored by Rep. Brian Hill, R-Zanesville, and Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton, is designed to change that. The measure, introduced Thursday, creates a legal definition of sexting and makes it illegal for those 21 and under, classifying it as a misdemeanor. The law would cover up to age 21, but that’s only in the case of an adult and minor sexting.

Currently, those under the age of 18 who take and share nude of sexual images are prosecuted under Ohio’s child pornography laws.

Under the proposal, if qualifications are met on a first offense, an individual would be offered a sexting educational diversion program or another diversionary-type program. If, however, the sext was used as a means of coercion, threat or bribery, that person would not qualify for the diversion program, Rezabek said.

“I don’t want to be soft on crime, we are dealing with adolescents,” Hill said.

The diversion program would go over the legal consequences of sexting and the spilling effect sexting has on their personal relationships and educational opportunities.

The idea behind the bill is to ensure that “their futures are not completely ruined,” Rezabek said.

One in five teens have sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves, according to a 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

These 13- 14- and 15-year-olds can have their lives ruined with sexting charges following them around for years, ultimately hindering their chances of getting into college, receiving scholarships and finding a job, Hill said.

Some counties already have diversion programs in place, but rural counties often don’t, Rezabek said. Neither Rezabek nor Hill knew how many counties already had a diversion program.

The bill encourages counties that lack a such a program to either create or combine one with a nearby county.

“Kids are held responsible for action, and this will protect their futures a little bit,” Rezabek said.

This is not the first time legislation attempting to regulate sexting has been introduced. In 2010, the Ohio House passed House Bill 473 that would have punished teenagers for “sexting” but ensure that they do not face harsh punishments or be out on the sex-offender registry typically associated with transmitting nude pictures of minors.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association opposed the 2010 bill, and it ultimately did not get a hearing in the Senate.

“Dramatically reducing the penalties as this bill does sends the wrong message that this is not really a serious offense when in fact it can have devastating consequences for those involved,” reads testimony from the association seven years ago.

When asked Friday about the new bill, a spokesman said prosecutor were not familiar with the legislation and did not wish to comment.