200 Year Sentence

March 5, 2007

Near the end of February 2007, the case of Morton Berger, a 52 year old Arizona man was generating a lot of headlines. Berger was convicted on 20 counts of possession of child porn, and sentenced to 10 years for each count, to be served consecutively, without the possibility of parole. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, thus letting stand the 200 year sentence. If the news reports can be believed, Berger had well over 20 items of child porn, and at least some were hard-core images of explicit sexual activity involving children under 10 years of age. Try Reuters or the BBC for more background.

The consensus of the American public was that Berger got what he deserved. That Berger would probably have received a much lighter sentence if his crime had been rape, homicide, or murder – crimes that directly harm another person – didn’t seem to matter to most people.

Rhetorical questions

Does anyone really think that a 200 year sentence for child porn possession will be a sufficient deterrent that people will stop seeking child porn?

Does this case send the message to at least some of the people currently using child porn that they might as well go for the “real thing” and seek out a child for actual sex?

My Opinion

I believe that no criminal sentence, not life in prison, not 200 years in prison, not even the death penalty, can function as a real deterrent against the use of child porn at this time. Despite the many child porn cases that break in the news each day, despite ever longer sentences handed down, the use of child porn appears to continue unabated. The reason, in my opinion, is that the real punishment, the worst punishment, comes not at the sentencing, but when one is first accused and exposed as a user of child porn to ones friends, family, coworkers, and community. I think most users of child porn feel that if they are ever caught that their life is basically ruined anyway, and whether they face a sentence of 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years is irrelevant. Western society now directs so much hatred, shame, and ostracism at those exposed for using child porn that the criminal justice system really has nothing left with which to deter people from using child porn.

Furthermore, when the penalty for using child porn exceeds the penalty for actually going out and doing what is shown in those pictures or videos, some people are probably going to make the move from viewer to doer. The combination of hatred, shame, ostracism, and ridiculously harsh sentences may well cause some child porn users to seek out actual children to satisfy their sexual interests. Society’s desire for retribution may well be putting even more children at risk.

Update: March 9, 2007

Just four days after first making this post, I came across this story at the website of a Central Florida NBC affiliate WESH. Nearly a dozen people were caught in a child porn sting. The police investigators described the images as, “some of the most heinous cases of child pornography,” which is almost boilerplate text for these formulaic stories.

Worth noting however is the following

Edward Dameron, 45, was also arrested. He was a Disney audio-visual employee. A week after authorities searched his home, he hanged himself and died.

Yes, it’s just one example, but it perfectly illustrates my point. The threat of jail was apparently no deterrent to Edward Dameron, but once exposed he took his life, presumably finding suicide preferable to living as a know user of child porn. It could be that Edward Dameron was just a coward, but could his actions also be those of a man afraid not of prosecution, but of persecution?