- Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Chair, Governor's Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence
WORCESTER — For the better part of the 21st century, we’ve witnessed technology and wireless communications become a part of our everyday lives. As parents, we see our children exposed to technology, through devices like smart phones and tablets, in ways we could have never imagined. Individually as parents and collectively as a society, we must establish boundaries to prevent the use of technology as a weapon to harm others.
As technology changes, the laws that govern them must adapt as well.
Three years ago, Governor Baker signed an Executive Order re-launching the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. The council has worked hard to address child trafficking, protect our most vulnerable children, and expand programs for survivors.
Through discussions and meetings, the council has identified important and necessary changes to laws governing how Massachusetts addresses the harmful distribution of sexually explicit visual materials by both adults and teenagers.
“An Act Relative to the Harmful Distribution of Sexually Explicit Visual Material” was filed a year ago by our administration with the support of district attorneys, police chiefs, and bipartisan legislative support.
Our legislation modernizes an outdated state law pertaining to explicit images and provides prosecutors with more tools to protect the Commonwealth’s young people, who are most often impacted by these issues.
For people under the age of 18, the proposal shifts the focus to educational diversion programs rather than relying on juvenile justice processes as a first resort for minor offenses. As the law is currently written, minors who engage in peer-to-peer distribution of sexually explicit visual material - “sexting,” for example - are subject to prosecution for the distribution or possession of child pornography. These felony charges are often too harsh a sanction for conduct that is not what lawmakers had in mind when they outlawed child pornography. Our legislation would give district attorneys the discretion to decide whether a minor should be prosecuted for a felony, prosecuted for a misdemeanor or instead referred to an educational program.
Three main components of our legislation provide necessary updates to current law to better manage sexually explicit image incidents in Massachusetts and highlight the power of prevention.
1. Empowering prosecutors to appropriately handle cases involving minors and explicit images. This legislation will enable district attorneys and the attorney general to use their best judgment when deciding whether youth should be charged with a felony, misdemeanor, or be referred to an alternative educational program. Educational programming will be the presumptive disposition for children. For those children for whom a prosecutor determines the juvenile justice system is necessary and appropriate, this legislation allows minors to be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
2. Combating cyber-bullying through preventative education.This legislation requires schools to address the use of explicit images to tease or intimidate students by asking administrators to update their district’s cyber-bullying policies to promote prevention and early intervention. Massachusetts students and educators all need to stay informed about the role of explicit images in bullying.
3. Toughening the consequences for sending sexually explicit images without consent. Massachusetts law has a gap when it comes to “revenge pornography.” Our laws punish the non-consensual recording of sexually explicit images, but do not address when a sexually explicit image or recording taken of someone lawfully is distributed with the intent to harm the person in the photo or video. Our legislation would toughen the penalty for adults who share images without consent of the subject involved, making it a felony, rather than a misdemeanor or minor crime.
We have received strong bipartisan support, and are proud that this bill was recently reported favorably from the Committee on the Judiciary, accompanied to a similar bill filed by Representative Jeffrey N. Roy, D-Franklin. Rep. Roy has been a longtime advocate for these issues, educating the public and vocalizing his concerns in communities.
As redrafted, the legislation modernizes the laws pertaining to minors sharing explicit images and combating cyber bullying, but does not address “revenge pornography,” an issue that over thirty states have tackled by taking similar steps to the ones proposed in our legislation to protect their citizens by criminalizing this conduct. The citizens of Massachusetts deserve the same protections.
We will continue working across the aisle with our partners in the Legislature to discuss these pieces of legislation as they make their way through the legislative process.
With fewer than 80 days before the Legislature ends its formal sessions, we ask our colleagues in the Legislature to promptly enact our legislation.
If passed, the Commonwealth can prioritize prevention education, create flexibility in the justice system to apply appropriate punishments, and help state law keep up with technology. As lawmakers, educators and law enforcement, we can stand together to protect the most important people in our lives, our children and the future of this great state.
Karyn Polito, of Shrewsbury, is the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and is chair of the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
This column was originally published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on May 15, 2018.