Criminal Justice

Child Molesters Face Shorter Sentences Than Child Porn Viewers. That's Wrong.

Understanding why the folks who look at kiddie porn often get longer sentences than the people who molest children in real life.


Wikimedia Commons

Here's a weird criminal justice fact: The folks who look at kiddie porn often get longer sentences than the people who molest children in real life.

Reporter Lex Talamo at The Shreveport Times just delved into this disparity, and found a dismayingly simple reason for it. Charges against actual child rapists are hard to prove. Kids can be unreliable witnesses, and often the social dynamics are thorny. The perp could be a family member that loved ones don't want to see go to jail, or the accusations can come out long after the act.

But child porn? There it is on the computer. It's a simple slam dunk for prosecutors. And so, Talamo writes:

The conviction rate in U.S. child pornography possession cases is 97 percent, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The conviction rate is much lower for offenders who commit hands-on sex crimes against children: 46 percent.

Talamo looks at the case of Nathaniel Kelly, a man found guilty of raping sisters aged 9 and 11, who were friends of the family.

At that age, they were less likely to fight back. More likely to stay silent. Easier targets.

For these rapes, Kelly got 17 years in prison.

Talamo contrasts Kelly's crime with that of Jesse Ward, a guy who shared a single kiddie porn picture with an undercover cop. A later search of Ward's computer found more than 10 such images.

A former cop and preschool teacher, Ward used a peer-to-peer network that is part of the harder-to-access dark web to share a single image of child pornography with an online undercover agent in 2007. Ward had no contact with the child victim in the image, and he had no previous criminal record.

Ward is serving 20 years for those pictures.

The argument for such long sentences is that someone, somewhere, abused a child, and by possessing the image of that abuse, the child porn viewer is supporting the abuser.

This was certainly true in the age when child porn was only available in the back of adult book stores, and the money spent on the photos went to the people involved in their creation and distribution. But now that child porn is ubiquitous—and often free—the people downloading it are no longer financially supporting the perps.

What's more, the child porn laws were written for an era when "transporting the images across state lines" meant doing a lot more than simply pressing a button. But for Ward:

The transportation charge applied because he had uploaded the image to a network from which users in other states could download it—thus crossing state lines, a distinction that gained his crime federal status.

Distribution charges carry mandatory minimums of five to 20 years behind bars under Louisiana state law. Actual, hands-on child molesting, "a lewd or lascivious act on a child under age 17," carries a penalty of 5 to 10 years behind bars.

No one is in favor of child porn. Everyone would like to see the people who create it face justice. But treating the viewing of illegal images as more egregious than physically molesting a child makes no sense.

NEXT: Deconstructing Wonder Woman

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. But child porn? There it is on the computer. It’s a simple slam dunk for prosecutors.

    Seems like it would be relatively simple to frame someone.

    Also, the FBI distributed child pornography, so how illegal/immoral can it be?

    1. As if prosecutors cared about either of those things.

    2. This is the agency that got the name “Federal Baby Incinerators” for murdering children with fire. For them, distributing child pornography is a huge step up.

    3. I knew an older guy who pretty much had his life destroyed by a child porn investigation. In the end he was not convicted of anything (I don’t think there was even a trial), but it took a lot out of him and he died soon after.

  2. Did I miss the part where the original point was made? Why is it that viewers get longer sentences than molesters?

    I read the part where it’s easier to make the charges stick. I also read the part where it is implied that viewers get longer sentences. But did you ever answer why the viewers get longer sentences than molesters? For that matter, did you actually show that the accusation is true? The one example given wasn’t a guy who got a long sentence for viewing, but rather a guy who got a long sentence for distribution. Not that either are acceptable and not that the punishment isn’t maybe excessive for both.

    But where does the article provide any support that, “The folks who look at kiddie porn often get longer sentences than the people who molest children in real life.”

    1. No. You didn’t. The point is to conflate the two.

      Give it a few years, Reason and others will begin the cry to decriminalize pedophilia altogether, using the same arguments made in favor of homosexuals. “They can’t help who they are” “Tolerance and Love” “As long as the child ‘consented’ it’s not wrong!” “It’s the Current Year!” “It’s completely natural!” “Love is not a sin!”

      If / When that day comes, I’ll be getting off of the Libertarian train, because we will have traveled farther than I’m willing to go.

      1. Pedophilia is already decriminalized. Acting on pedophilia will never be legal, and it’s silly to think Reason would advocate on it because they believe that adult homosexuals should have equal protections under the law.

      2. Well, libertarians who make those arguments do exist. I’ll bet against it becoming the position of Reason or mainstream libertarians, though. There’s a bit of a gray area for pubescent teenagers, but I don’t see many people being convinced that any sexual relations between an adult and a pre-pubescent child are not a crime.

    2. Well, child porn charges are often federal, while molestation cases are mostly state things. And the Feds love mandatory minimums and long sentences without parole.

    3. I was disappointed by the bait-&-switch too. I have an answer for the Q: mostly because child porn per se became a concern only recently, during an era when criminal penalties generally were thought to be too low. Secondarily because kid porn now catches all the flak that porn generally used to; see, most porn has come to be accepted in the USA as non-obscene, hence constitutionally protected, so all the vilif’n that used to come down on porn makers & consumers generally is visited solely on those partaking of the kid stuff. See, it has to all balance out: the total amount of persecution within a given society must stay constant.

      1. > See, it has to all balance out: the total amount of persecution within a given society must stay constant.

        I had never thought of it like that; it explains a lot.

  3. I personally think that as long as people are not involved in the actual production of child porn (including watching live), they should be free to watch what they please.

  4. But now that child porn is ubiquitous?and often free?the people downloading it are no longer financially supporting the perps.

    Is it really ubiquitous? I’m guessing that most of us use the internet constantly, and haven’t encountered it… Maybe I’m wrong. Seems an odd choice of words.

    I don’t know anything about the subject really, so I guess we have to trust Skenazy is right that this stuff isn’t paid for, and that people viewing and downloading the videos / pictures aren’t “supporting” the people actually doing the deeds. Personally, I have little pity for people intentionally watching / downloading / uploading child porn. Of course anyone who isn’t doing it intentionally and comes across it by accident or through malware I pity greatly.

    This does make me think about this article which I haven’t really seen getting much play in larger publications.

    1. SF’ed the link.

      1. Anchor good, linkie no. Not even anything that looks like an address in the code.

  5. While I’d agree that 20 years for a single picture is far, far too long, its quite a misrepresentation to claim that CP viewers receive shorter sentences than child molesters. First the term molestation is very broad and most states don’t have a statute criminalizing “molestation.” Its a colloquial term that encompasses anything from inappropriate clothes-on touching to forced penetration and intercourse. In Louisianna–which is cited as giving a punishment of 5 to 10 years imprisonment–the penalties for any type of criminal sexual interaction are greatly enhanced when a victim is under the age of 13. For instance, sexual battery of a 12 year old would carry a penalty of 25 to 99 years, including a mandatory term of 25 years before being eligible for parole or probation or a suspended sentence. (Sexual battery is the charge most related to ‘molestation’ that doesn’t include forcible penetration, and would include any contact between either of the offender or the victims genitals or anus, directly or through clothing.) Actual intercourse with one under the age of 13 is First Degree Rape and carries a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence.

    You are bringing to light very important points about the prosecution of child pornography cases, but you don’t need to utilize a false narrative to do so.

  6. No one is in favor of child porn.

    Except for, you know, all the people who make it, sell it, share it, and view it.

  7. The trifecta, creating, possessing, and starring in.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.