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Abusing kids now carries harsher sentence for teachers

Published April 3, 2014 9:26 am

Justice • Tougher penalty for fondling offenses among changes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A teacher found guilty of fondling a student could spend up to five years in prison, according to a new law signed last week by Gov. Gary Herbert.

But for religious leaders, parents, Scout leaders, doctors, adult baby sitters or others in "a position of trust," the sentence would still be no more than one year in jail.

To some, such as the bill's sponsor Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, the disparity makes sense as a preventative measure — upping the ante may be more effective at discouraging that kind of inappropriate conduct.

To others, it's a deviation that undermines fair and equal distribution of justice.

"It creates a new crime that's entirely different than the structure we have now," said Utah Sentencing Commission Director Jennifer Valencia at its regular meeting Wednesday. "There are inherent issues here. "

The commission, comprised of judges, lawmakers and public safety officials, voted during the session to oppose the bill. But it passed anyway.

On Saturday, the governor signed it into law.

HB213 included one of four new third-degree felony crimes put on the books during this past legislative session.

In total, state legislators approved four new third-degree felonies, seven new class A misdemeanors, seven new class B misdemeanors, one new class C misdemeanor and half a dozen new fines for offenses.

Of those, three felonies and 13 misdemeanors have been signed into law by the governor.

Among those, SB205, sponsored by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, states that drug possession may not be prosecuted as a more serious crime than a second-degree felony.

That means the maximum sentence for such a crime would amount to up to 15 years in prison, as opposed to the up-to-life penalty tied to first-degree felonies.

It was signed by the governor last Tuesday.

Several of the new crimes created this session were direct responses to events and actions that outraged Utahns, but for which there was no explicit violation.

Two house bills signed into law by the governor last month create new misdemeanor offenses in response to the scandal surrounding former Attorney General John Swallow.

HB394, which would require candidates to itemize how money from their account is spent rather than being able to make lump-sum payments to consultants or credit-card companies for expenses, also makes it a class B misdemeanor to do otherwise. Sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, the bill was signed into law on March 13.

The second bill, HB390, made it a crime to obstruct a legislative investigation and amended the definition of a pattern of unlawful activities to include tampering with evidence and falsifying or destroying certain government records. It was approved by the governor on Saturday.

Others target specific populations, such as teachers or medical professionals, or actions, like destroying political campaign material.

Several appear to respond to cultural shifts — like the widely reported "revenge porn" bill that clearly outlaws the distribution of "intimate images" without the subject's expressed consent, and new charges that extend "controlled substances" to include new fad drugs.

According to a comprehensive list issued Wednesday by the Sentencing Commission, this year's session saw significantly fewer new crimes approved than in years past.

Last year, the Legislature voted in 17 new felonies and 14 misdemeanors.