Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Child pornography "He was just looking at pictures. There's no victim."

Child pornography "He was just looking at pictures. There's no victim."

That, in a nutshell, is the argument for why people caught with child pornography should get off with (relatively) light sentences.

Don't buy it.

People found guilty of having, making or distributing pornographic pictures or videos of children deserve harsh sentences. And society deserves the protection that approach gives its children.

This isn't somebody else's problem. There have been, in the last year, arrests for child porn in Gloucester and James City and York counties, in Williamsburg, Hampton and Newport News. And those are just the cases we know about.

Having child porn is not where it stops. Local children are being abused to make pornography, according to the Peninsula Innocent Images Task Force.

A recent Hampton case illustrates this well. Ronald Ray, who was sentenced to life terms last week for sexually abusing three girls, made pornographic pictures and videos of them and posted some of them on the Internet.

Pulling from the FBI, other federal agencies and local law enforcement, the local task force brings more resources and expertise to the important job of finding child pornographers in this area. Having the feds involved is particularly helpful, because federal courts hand out appropriately long sentences, stretching as long as 20 years when the volume of images is large, or the content particularly vile.

Republican Bob McDonnell made this a signature issue when he was state attorney general, so expect to hear about it as he runs for governor. Rightly so. It's also a good thing that the General Assembly found money for Internet Crimes Against Children task forces that work statewide.

There are several reasons why it's vital to flush out people who make, share and enjoy child pornography:

• Because for every picture and every video, there is a victim, a child used and abused. FBI Special Agent Paula Barrows of the Peninsula task force refers to the image as "a graphic depiction of a crime scene, of a child being sexually assaulted." You probably don't want to know that some of the children in these "crime scenes" are babies, but you should know. And you should push for the people who put them there, or enjoyed seeing them there, to get every last year of punishment they have coming.

• Because pornography can be a taste that, indulged, only grows. That helps explain why many of the raids have uncovered stashes that number in the thousands of images. The Internet has unlocked a torrent of child porn, turning it into a multibillion-dollar, global business. The Justice Department figures that the proliferation and easy indulgence has reset where the limits used to be, leading to "an escalation in the severity of the abuse depicted." By providing supply, pornographers incite demand. Which means more children victimized to make the porn, and more at risk from people who turn from the virtual to the real thing.

• Because "just looking at pictures" sometimes — often, even — doesn't end there. Taboos erode, and with them, the hurdle between thought and action. Many consumers of child pornography aren't just curious bystanders, but active participants in the sexual abuse of children.

No one really knows how common the crossover is. Some studies estimate that 30 percent to 40 percent of those arrested on child porn charges also molest children. In a study released last year, psychologists at the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that the vast majority of the prisoners they were treating, who were serving sentences for possession or distribution of child porn, had also sexually abused children — most of them many children — but hadn't been caught.

None of this convicts any individual collector of child porn of child rape. And we can't punish people for something they haven't done, by escalating child porn sentences because of the fear of other crimes. But we can reckon that the thing people caught with child pornography have done — create demand for an industry that abuses children — deserves real punishment.

Because the children in those photos and videos are real victims.