FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Teachers, coaches and priests convicted of sex crimes against children will face longer prison sentences beginning Tuesday.
That's when a long list of new laws, many of them intended to protect children, go into effect.
"You can't legislate morality, but you can make sure people know if they do something they shouldn't to a child that something will be done to them," said state Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, a former teacher.
Under one of the most publicized new laws, people in positions of authority over children face felony criminal charges for having any form of sexual contact with the minors they oversee. State Rep. Jim Wayne, who ushered the law through the General Assembly earlier this year, said it also closes a long-standing loophole under which teachers broke no criminal laws by having sex with students, as long as the students were at least 16 years old and willing participants.
In addition, the law increases the statute of limitations on misdemeanor sex crimes, giving victims, who were minors at the time, until their 23rd birthday to press charges. Ordinarly, the statute of limitations on misdemeanors is one year. It also increases jail time for people who know about instances of sexualabuse but do not tell authorities.
In Kentucky, education officials handled nearly 100 sexual misconduct allegations against teachers from 2001 through 2005. The allegations ranged from minor violations like using sexual language to more serious, criminal acts such as inappropriate touching, sodomy and rape.
Similar allegations led states across the country to take action against the teaching licenses of 2,570 educators over the five-year period, according to an Associated Press investigation.
"It's important that we do whatever we can to protect our children," said House Speaker Jody Richards, a Bowling Green Democrat who supported a number of new child protection laws, including one aimed at school yard bullies.
Under the bullying law, the legal definition of harassment would be changed to include student behavior that causes physical harm, intimidation or humiliation for fellow students. That change essentially elevates bullying to a criminal offense.
The Kentucky Education Association heralded both the sex abuse and bullying laws.
"Anything we can do to protect our children, to provide them safer environments, is a benefit," said President Sharron Oxendine.
The Louisville-based group Kentucky Youth Advocates touts yet another law - one that requires children to ride in car booster seats - as one of the state's most important new laws.
"We know motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among children, and we fully expect to see a decrease in fatalities and injuries," said Tara Grieshop-Goodwin, the organization's deputy director.
The law requires children to ride in booster seats until they're 7 years old, unless they're at least 50 inches tall. Under the law, drivers face only courtesy warnings until July 1, 2009. After that, they can be fined $30.
Kentucky Youth Advocates executive director Terry Brooks also praised a law that bars children from operating thrill rides in Kentucky.
An accident that severed the feet of a 14-year-old girl at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom last year led to the new law.
Alarmed to learn that the Louisville ride operator was only two years older than the victim, legislators amended existing state law to require that people who run the rides be at least 18 years old.
Kentucky joins 10 other states that require ride operators to be at least 18, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Another 16 states require ride operators to be at least 16. The others have no age requirements.
Brooks said most people will take comfort knowing that children aren't at the controls of amusement park rides.
"It's like one of the most commonsense changes that I could imagine," he said.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)