A panel of New Jersey lawmakers has advanced a proposal to increase penalties for individuals who use a victim's explicit photos or videos to get more out of them, including sexual acts.

A proposed law approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee creates the crime of sexual extortion, which advocates and officials say is on the rise here and across the nation.

"It is a grievous form of exploitation and harassment. Especially with the prevalence of social media, cases of sexual extortion continue to increase,” said Sen. Fred Madden, D-Gloucester, a primary sponsor of the bipartisan bill. “This legislation is a vital step to addressing and combating this growing epidemic. This bill provides law enforcement agents with the tools necessary to properly identify and prosecute this crime.”

Under the bill, sexual extortion would count as a crime of the third degree. That's ordinarily punishable by a term of imprisonment of three to five years, a fine of up to a $15,000, or both.

Aggravated sexual extortion could be the charge if the actor committed an act of sexual extortion on a child under 18 years of age or an adult with a developmental disability. The penalty would be five to 10 years in prison, and/or a fine of up to $150,000.

"Victims are often teens and young women and they feel like they have no option but to comply," said Kate Owen, an attorney who testified before lawmakers on behalf of the nonprofit Legal Momentum.

In many sexual extortion cases, Owen said, the perpetrator gains the trust of the victim and secures compromising material. The actor then threatens to publicize that material, unless more photos or videos are sent, or there's an in-person sexual encounter.

"Like all gender-based violence, we believe this crime is actually far underreported, and that it has even gotten worse in the wake of COVID, as we've all gotten more reliant on technology than ever before," Owen said.

Perpetrators in New Jersey today could be hit with a coercion charge, which carries maximum penalties that are much more lenient than the charges included in the proposed law.

“This despicable conduct cannot be tolerated,” said Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Warren, a primary sponsor. “This is cyber bullying at the highest level, and the young victims deserve the support and protection offered by this bill."

Since 2017, 17 states and the District of Columbia have added sexual extortion laws, according to Owen. New Jersey's proposal would not preclude prosecution from also charging alleged perpetrators with invasion of privacy or aggravated sexual assault.

The measure was first approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. The Assembly version of the bill has not seen any action since being introduced in January.

Before voting to advance the measure on Oct. 31, Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, chair of the budget committee, said he would sign on as a sponsor.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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