THE BLOG

Capitol Punishment: The Troubling Consequences of Federal Child Pornography Laws

02/19/2014 09:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014
  • Andrew Extein, MSW Social worker, psychotherapist, advocate, and writer on issues of sexuality and criminal justice
AP Photo/WJLA TV

Co-authored by Galen Baughman

I.

Until Dec. 11, 2013, Jesse Ryan Loskarn was a popular chief of staff for a Tennessee senator. But on that winter day, police broke down the door of his rowhouse in southeast Washington, D.C., and searched for the illegal digital items that had led them there: explicit videos of boys posing nude and engaging in sexual acts.

On Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, Ryan was found dead in his basement.

On Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, there was a twist. Ryan's mother posted his suicide note online, revealing the great complexity to his story. He wasn't a faceless headline, wasn't a cautionary tale, wasn't a vague story of justice. He became what most people didn't want him to be: a human being.

What most of us have trouble comprehending -- an argument all but forbidden in our current climate -- is that Ryan could be understood as a victim himself. For his suicide note reveals a stunning truth: his own history of sexual abuse, one that had far-reaching, complex emotional effects.

II.

The way the government punishes the purchasing, downloading, possession, or distribution of child pornography has become increasingly draconian. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the length of federal child pornography sentences has increased 500-percent in the last 15 years. The federal mandatory minimum is five years for receipt, distribution, possession with intent to distribute or sell, transportation, or production of child pornography -- per image. This conduct could range anywhere from producing explicit images of the violent abuse of children to accidentally clicking on the wrong link or inadvertently downloading a video on a file-sharing network. Yet law enforcement (and society generally) conflates these situations; child pornography becomes a loaded and intimidating institution that needs to be crushed.

The legislative scheme underlying current child pornography laws in the U.S. goes much further than addressing the actual harm caused by viewing or possessing such images. Rather, these sentences address imaginary assertions that those who view or download such illicit images are also guilty of undiscovered abuse in the past or will commit heinous contact offenses in the future.

In 2011 a federal appeals court called into question the justice of current federal sentences for child pornography possession. Current sentencing rules routinely result in prison terms that meet or exceed the 20-year statutory maximum for the charges, regardless of whether the person has done anything more than just look at the wrong photo online. The appeals court viewed such punishment as "outrageously high."

In a statement from the United States Sentencing Commission last February announcing their report on child pornography, Judge Saris concluded, "Because of changes in the use of Internet-based technologies, the existing penalty structure is in need of revision." Despite the strong evidence calling into question the rationale and effects of current U.S. sentencing policy, thousands of people continue to be sentenced under these extreme penalty schemes every year.

At the dawn of the digital age, sex offender hysteria has fueled a new form of witch hunt. Such has historically been the case for groups identified as an emerging threat to society, whether they are composed of the namesake "witches," who were actually mentally ill or socially ostracized women, gay men in the mid-20th century, or alleged satanic child molestation cultists decades later. Traditional subjects of witch hunts are easy targets: Already marginalized and disliked by society, they become demonized and portrayed as evil on an unearthly plane. People can slip into this category quickly; with today's Internet, it's as easy for a person to download a sexualized image or video of a minor as it is for law enforcement to track down and identify those doing the downloading.

As with the war on drugs, the lowest-hanging fruit is easiest to pick. Law enforcement has found it far easier to track down low-level users and dealers than to stem the large-scale creation and distribution of narcotics. In the war on sex offenders, it's easier to prosecute teens for sexting or someone for looking at the wrong image online than it is to address the contact sexual abuse of children. At a time when parents feel more insecure than ever about the dangers facing their children, the prospect of the Internet -- a space new to this generation, full of dark places and unknown threats -- has inspired genuine fear, born perhaps of ignorance more than anything else.

III.

So what happens when someone is arrested for possession of child pornography? They feel as if their lives have been ruined, that there is no going back to a normal life, no way out, no hope for understanding or empathy from anyone in their lives. They are immediately fired from their jobs. Human relationships crumble, and families are shattered. They are almost invariably convicted and sent to prison and are often placed in imposed solitary confinement, which may be physically safe but can be psychologically damaging. In prison, child pornography offenders are the lowest on the totem pole, both ostracized and targeted. They are often subjected to abuse from inmates and staff alike and are sometimes even killed. Having a same-sex victim comes with its own baggage and set of biases, as one now becomes a double offender, transgressing social boundaries of age as well as gender.

Once released from prison, child porn offenders are placed on a sex offender registry, many for the rest of their lives. Currently nearly 750,000 people are listed as sex offenders on the public registry. The rules of the registry make it nearly impossible to find work or housing, and this is even harder for those on parole and probation. They are publicly listed on the Internet with a photo, address and description of the offense, which leaves the offenders and their families vulnerable to harassment, violence, and sometimes murder. Recently two registrants were beaten and killed in New Hampshire for being publicly listed as sex offenders. A registrant in South Carolina and his wife were killed by a white supremacist in their homes, once again for being listed on the public registry. Suicide as a consequence of sex offender registries is also common. Last year, in a profoundly tragic situation, a 15-year-old boy in Alabama hanged himself shortly after being arrested for streaking during a high school football game. While there are many factors to suicide, it seems that the school's explicit threat of prison and sex offender status greatly contributed to his death. Sadly, these cases are not rare.

These facts likely contributed to Ryan's decision to end his own life. He was smart and worked in politics -- he knew the consequences. In his letter, Ryan recounts his humiliation, suffering, and regret around his situation.

The most complex part of his situation is admitted in his letter:

I found myself drawn to videos that matched my own childhood abuse. It's painful and humiliating to admit to myself, let alone the whole world, but I pictured myself as a child in the image or video. The more an image mirrored some element of my memories and took me back, the more I felt a connection.

This is my deepest, darkest secret.

As a child I didn't understand what had happened at the time of the abuse. I did know that I must not tell anyone, ever. Later the memories took on new and more troubling meaning when I became a teenager. They started to appear more often and made me feel increasingly apart from everyone else. In my mind I instigated and enjoyed the abuse -- even as a five and nine year old -- no matter the age difference. Discussing what had happened would have meant shame and blame.

What he is saying is both familiar and counter to the societal dialogue around child sexual abuse. Yet his personal story and complex emotional world are real. Viewing an offender as a victim of sexual abuse, which is so often the case, is hard and goes against our instincts to oversimplify the vilification of an abuser.

The decision to empathize with a person who has caused harm is a deeply personal one. We know that many minds will not be changed on this issue. We are asking you, however, to think about what happened to Ryan, think about the laws, and think about the way society and the media contributes to hatred and hysteria. How do we all contribute to the groupthink? Where did we learn our biases? Are our attitudes and approaches helping address the very real problem of child sexual abuse? Ryan's death is a tragedy, and we would like to believe that his suicide, and others, could have been prevented. Averting future tragedies begins by understanding the entire picture of child sex abuse, our societal responses to such harm, and the very human core beneath it all.

Galen Baughman is Director of Communications for International CURE, where he advocates for criminal justice reform from a perspective of human rights.