HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania is on the brink of criminalizing sexual extortion -- that is, the use of threats to get victims to perform sexual acts or to provide explicit images.
A sextortion bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate last week and Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it, his spokesman J.J. Abbott said Monday.
The move is the latest effort by lawmakers to update state law to address the perils of the computer age, said state Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer County, the prime sponsor of the legislation.
In many cases, the offenders try to coerce their victims to sharing additional explicit images by threatening to distribute explicit images they’ve already gotten from the victim, Nesbit said.
“They’ll say they are going to send them to your family or your boss,” he said.
The state’s move to criminalize sexual extortion isn’t completely without controversy.
The American Civil Liberties Union cited the sexual extortion bill last month as an example of how lawmakers have unnecessarily created new criminal offenses when the conduct could often be prosecuted under existing statutes.
That report, “More Law, Less Justice,” noted that the number of criminal offenses in Pennsylvania has more than doubled to 1,500 since 2010 when there were 636 criminal offenses defined in Pennsylvania law.
“For far too long, Pennsylvania lawmakers have engaged in a manic sort of lawmaking, which prosecutors then embrace as they look for any edge in pushing defendants to take plea deals,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Department of Justice said sexual extortion is one of most significant growing threats faced by children, and that 71 percent of victims are under the age of 18, Nesbit said. A recent FBI report found that offenders were focusing on children because they may be easy targets who are willing to interact online and through live-streaming video, he said.
Sexual extortion is similar to revenge porn. But revenge porn typically involves a situation where a person releases explicit images to embarrass the victim, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while sexual extortion involves using the threat of releasing explicit images to get the victim perform sex acts or provide more images. Pennsylvania made revenge porn illegal in 2014.
Nesbit said the move to create the new offense of sexual exploitation was initiated at the request of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, because prosecutors felt like there was a gap in the existing law.
Under the proposal, the offender would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor if the victim is an adult, and the charge would become a third-degree felony if the accused is an adult but the victim is a juvenile or the victim has intellectual disabilities or the accused has a supervisory or disciplinary power over the victim. The crime can also become a felony if the accused is found to have repeatedly perpetrated sexual extortion over victims.
A first-degree misdemeanor carries a maximum of five years in jail, according to state law. A third-degree felony carries a maximum of seven years in prison, according to state law. Under the state’s revenge porn law, Act 115 of 2014, a person convicted of revenge porn targeting a minor can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. If the victim of the revenge porn is an adult, it’s a second-degree misdemeanor carring a penalty of up to two years in prison.