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Child Pornography: Throwing Away the Key

When asked about their thoughts on child pornography, most people have this reaction: “Lock ’em up and throw away the key.”

This is just as true in North Carolina – maybe even more so.

The best evidence from studies, surveys, and research, indicates that even people who view child pornography almost never actually participate in the sexual assault of minors. There are also plenty of stories of prosecutions against people whose computers were hacked or Wi-Fi networks were compromised such that contraband material was on their computers when they weren’t even aware of its presence.

And, of course, there are people who download legal pornography on peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent or Gigatribe only to find out that some of the files contain illegal child pornography.

In spite of these real problems with the prosecution of people who merely possess child pornography, the penalties are incredibly harsh. So harsh that they are calling into question the whole approach to addressing child pornography in the United States.

The New York Times reports that:

State and federal laws, which generally increase penalties based on the number of pornographic images, reflect the idea that acquiring child pornography requires extensive time and effort and thus is a measure of a defendant’s involvement and interest. But with the rise of the Internet, it is possible to download hundreds of images in a matter of minutes, making the size of a stash a less than reliable indicator, Mr. Stabenow and other criminal justice experts said. It is now a rare case that does not involve the possession of hundreds, or even thousands, of images.

As a result, many federal judges have issued sentences lower than those called for by federal guidelines, which add months for multiple images and other aggravating factors. And even when such sentencing enhancements are enforced, the sentences — which can sometimes be 18 or 20 years — are often well below what Mr. Vilca received. The federal guidelines, for example, recommend a minimum of 57 to 71 months in prison for possession of 600 or more images of very young children.

Certainly there’s something deeply offensive about child pornography. But, I would argue, there’s something deeply offensive about a society that sends someone to prison for life for the mere possession of images.



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