Legislature Passes Bill to Prevent Abuse and Exploitation

Special to the Independent

The Massachusetts Legislature enacted comprehensive legislation that criminalizes the non-consensual sharing of explicit images known as “revenge porn,” creates a diversion program for teens who share explicit images, statutorily defines coercive control as an element of domestic abuse, and extends the statute of limitations to pursue criminal charges for certain domestic violence offenses from six years to 15 years.

“This legislation is a significant step forward in addressing violence at all levels, now including digital platforms, by preventing abuse and exploitation, providing essential protections for survivors, and creating a safer community for everyone in this digital era,” said Representative Judith Garcia (D-Chelsea). “Together, we are sending a powerful message that abuse and exploitation online have no place in our society. An abuser can easily upload humiliating videos or images on social media platforms, which can cause serious emotional distress, alienation, and loss of income.”

“This legislation strikes the important balance of modernizing our criminal laws to ensure that those who share explicit images of others without their consent face punishment, with the need to educate minors on the dangers of sharing explicit images of themselves, rather than imposing upon them some of the criminal justice system’s most severe consequences,” said House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano (D-Quincy). “I’m also incredibly proud of this legislation’s bolstered protections for survivors, including the added consideration of nonphysical forms of abuse for those seeking restraining orders from their abusers.”

To address the non consensual distribution of explicit images by adults, the bill establishes a penalty in the existing criminal harassment statute which includes up to two and a half years of prison time and/or a monetary fine of up to $10,000. The bill increases the upper limit of the fine for criminal harassment from $1,000 to $5,000. If signed into law, the bill would also empower victims to petition the court for a harassment prevention order against a person who has violated the new statute.

The legislation also responds to the growing trend of individuals utilizing artificial intelligence and other digital imaging software to produce “deep fakes” of unsuspecting victims, a practice currently not prohibited under state law. These images, which are equally traumatizing to victims, often realistically depict a person’s face edited onto an unclothed body, making it challenging or impossible for viewers to determine what is reality. 

Under current law, minors who possess, purchase, or share explicit photos of themselves or other minors are charged with violating child pornography laws and are required to register as sex offenders. The legislation passed directs the Attorney General to establish an educational program to teach minors about the dire consequences and life-altering impacts caused by engaging in this behavior. The bill also allows the Commonwealth’s courts to divert minors to an educational program in lieu of sentencing to criminal punishment while providing district attorneys with the authority to petition the court to bring criminal charges in extreme cases. The educational diversion program would provide teenagers with information about the legal and nonlegal consequences of sexting, which would be made available to school districts.

The bill passed adds coercive control to the definition of abuse. Coercive control is a nonphysical form of abuse that includes a pattern of behavior intended to threaten, intimidate, harass, isolate, control, coerce or compel compliance of a family or household member in a manner that causes the targeted individual to fear physical harm or to have a reduced sense of physical safety or autonomy. Examples of coercive control include threatening to share explicit images, regulating or monitoring a family or household member’s communications and access to services, and isolating a family or household member from friends or relatives.

The legislation passed also extends the statute of limitations for assault and battery on a family or household member or against someone with an active protective order from six years to 15 years. This change brings the statute of limitations for these domestic violence offenses in line with the statute of limitations for the crimes of rape, assault with intent to commit rape and sex trafficking.

The same version of the bill having been passed by both chambers, the legislation now goes to the Governor’s desk for her signature.

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