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ANNAPOLIS — State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy testified before the Maryland General Assembly in support of Grace’s Law 2.0, an expansion of the law that criminalizes electronic bullying and harassment, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 7.
“Grace’s law is important because there is a lot of sexual exploitation of minors, as well as adults but in terms of Grace’s Law we’re targeting youth,” Braveboy said. “So there has been a trend in victims who have been sexually exploited through electronic means whether it’s social media, emails, instant messages and a variety of social media and communications platforms. So expanding the definition of electronic communication platforms helps us to be able to keep up really with the times and with the technology that’s being used to exploit people.”
Grace’s Law 2.0, which passed unanimously out of the Senate, significantly expands the original law created in 2013 that criminalizes cyber harassment. That law held a maximum penalty of one year in prison for offenders with a fine of $500. The new law makes three years in prison the maximum penalty as well as a $10,000 fine and expands the ability of prosecutors to pursue cases for online abuse.
According to Braveboy, the previous law required a continuing course of conduct with more than one action leading to the harassment.
However, the new law recognizes that offenders can share content with one click using social media and that content can go viral. Therefore, with the new law, only one significant act of harassment is required to prosecute.
“The young people know that and they are using that to bully and harass their classmates, their significant others and their ex-significant others and we want to deter that type of conduct, and this bill helps us achieve that as well,” Braveboy said.
On Tuesday, Jan. 29, Braveboy came before the Judicial Proceedings Committee to give examples in a short speech of where this kind of legislation could have been beneficial to the State’s Attorney’s office when involved in a case.
One of those examples was of a teenage girl being harassed by her classmates when another kid airdropped sexual photos of her to the entire school and were then shared with people outside of the school.
The other example Braveboy shared involved another teenager sharing explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend anonymously on a website. Braveboy said the new legislation would allow them to more narrowly define who would be involved in the harassment and define it as criminal behavior.
Braveboy also came before the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 7 to further explain the importance of this law.
“Bullying is a major issue in our state, in our county and across nation,” she said during the meeting.
“Bullying has led to victims being absent from school and inability to perform classwork, extremely emotional and physical harm, and in some cases, as we’ve heard today, death. Bullying just doesn’t just happen on the schoolyard but often happens through some form of electronic communication. Prosecutors need new and better tools to hold defendant accountable and serve justice to victims.”
Maryland Senator Robert Zirkin (D-11), who sponsored the bill, said he helped to get the first version of Grace’s Law passed and by today’s standards, it has proven to be ineffective.
“The problem with the current law is there is just a lot of hurdles that you’ve got to jump through to get somebody involved,” he said during the Feb. 7 meeting. “So for example ,when you say that, which is under current law, that the communication has to be sent directly to the individual the abuser can get away with horrible horrors by simply avoiding sending it directly to that individual.”
He said Grace’s Law 2.0 also eliminates the need to give an offender a warning for their first offense and further specified malice, intent and effect on the victim in the law.
Others gave testimony at the meetings from family members who lost a loved one due to suicide as a result of online bullying and those who work to assist victims in coping with these actions.
Latoya Bates, director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center For Infant and Child Laws, said in her time there working with families after they experience a sudden death of an infant or child, she has dealt with over 200 deaths per year and many of them are children who are driven to commit suicide from bullying.
“We have so many children who are taking their own lives because they are so vulnerable to depression and anxiety,” she said. “We need to understand exactly what is happening with these kids. We need to be able to reach out to our children to say that when we find bullying, intimidation and harassment involved, we need to let them know that there is hope and that there is accountability involved and we need to let them know that they are not alone.”
Braveboy said a lot of these situations revolve around some kind of revenge pictures that exes put out of former significant others and under the former law it was difficult to prosecute them. She said she hopes that Grace’s Law 2.0 passes and ends up being more beneficial.
“This permeates beyond the individual children, this is affecting affects our families, this is affecting our schools, and this is affecting entire communities,” said Associate Director of Economic Justice of the Maryland Catholic Conference Anne Wallerstedt at the Judicial Proceedings Committee Meeting. “We really need to do something. We need to do it for our children and we need to do it for ourselves.”