Worried parents and law enforcement officials are driving an increase in child pornography cases across the U.S. Sentences for viewing child porn range from probation to 20 years in prison, but judges are leaning toward lower sentences.
The Wall Street Journal analyzed four years of data and found a significant reduction in jail time. In 2006, about 20 percent of child porn possession and distribution cases brought sentences that fell below federal guidelines. By 2009, more than 40 percent of sentences brought such sentences, according to the Journal. In the same period, sentences below federal guidelines for all crimes rose slightly to 16 percent.
Judges balk at prosecutors' requests for 20-year sentences on child exploitation charges in the growing child porn caseload. According to the Journal, the Justice Department tallied a record 2,300 cases last year. This includes a large number of charges against defendants who viewed or downloaded child pornography, but were not involved in the creation or distribution of the videos or images.
To be sure, judges continue to hand down long sentences. In December, a California man faced up to 20 years in prison for accidentally downloading child porn while surfing the Internet for "Girls Gone Wild" videos.
Federal sentencing guidelines call for a minimum of five years in prison for viewing and downloading child pornography. The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that mandatory application of these guidelines was unconstitutional. The U.S. Sentencing Commission and Congress has made updating the guidelines a priority for 2010.
Judges in New York, Chicago and Denver have testified before the commission and called for reduced sentencing for child porn possession. Meanwhile, judges are shortening the jail time or even dropping the sentence to probation. Psychologists say most viewers of child porn will not molest children or become sexual predators. They say treatment is more effective than jail time.
Around the globe, 138 countries have no laws against possession of child pornography, according to a 2006 study by Interpol and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. The ICMEC calls for tougher laws and longer sentences. "Currently, the laws around the world are alarmingly insufficient to fight this epidemic," said Baron Daniel Cardon de Lichtbuer, Chairman of the Board of ICMEC in a 2006 report. "This is simply not acceptable."