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Child pornography arrests skyrocket as penalties grow harsher

In the past five years, the number of prosecutions for child pornography has increased by nearly 40 percent as the sentences doled out by judges have become more severe. In recent years, however, many legal scholars and some judges have begun to question the wisdom of such harsh sentences.

The dramatic upswing in cases began in 1996 when Congress passed a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years for anyone convicted of possessing child porn. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines have also been amended to call for even harsher sentences. To offer some perspective on the dramatic change, the average sentence in 1996 for possession of child pornography was only about one year.

Since the mandatory minimum was instituted, the FBI and other federal agencies have made child porn one of their top priorities and approximately 20,000 individuals have been arrested by federal agents over the past fifteen years. In fact, the FBI claims that the crime of child pornography has grown at a rate of 2,500 percent. That’s a higher growth rate than any other crime.

The striking increase in prosecutions and harsh sentences have caused some to stop and scratch their heads. In 2010, a federal judge in New York lambasted prosecutors and the current guidelines after the government asked for an 11 year sentence for a defendant caught with child pornography on his computer. The judge reasoned that the individual posed no risk to society and needed psychological treatment instead of prison. Indeed, many individuals accused of possession and distribution have no prior criminal history and lead otherwise productive lives.

Nonetheless, federal and state law enforcement expect the number of arrests and prosecutions to continue to grow at an accelerated pace as more and more people utilize peer-to-peer file sharing software similar to LimeWire and websites such as Craigslist, which tend to be the catalyst for most child pornography investigations.