Thursday, April 24, 2014

Capitol Punishment: The Troubling Consequences of Federal Child Pornography Laws

Posted by on April 23, 2014 in Featured Articles, Press |
Posted: Updated:

Co-authored by Galen Baughman


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.


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.


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.

Florida Action Committee (FAC), founded in 2006, is a state-wide consortium of concerned citizens and professionals whose purpose is to promote the prevention of sexual abuse while preserving the safety and dignity of all citizens through carefully structured laws targeting the truly violent, forced, and/or dangerous predatory acts of sex. FAC believes that many aspects of the current approach to sex offenders seriously undermine justice and actually increase the threat of sexual assault against others, particularly children. FAC opposes a publicized registry of sex offenders and seeks to bring an end to the humiliation of people who have already paid for their crimes. FAC asserts that only by supporting justice for all people—offenders and victims alike can a truly safe society be built and secured for all Americans.

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"When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect."
~Adlia Stevenson U.S. Vice President (1893–1897) and Congressman (1879–1881)

On a Personal Note

Thanks for the opportunity to express my thoughts regarding the issue of citizens’ rights, particularly addressing certain sex offenders’ crimes that do not fit the devastating, inequitable and endless punishment given.

As you know, many young men and women lives across the nation are being destroyed by incarceration, life-time registry and restrictive laws that do more harm than good. For those individuals, there is no second chance.

Below is a personal letter to President Obama:
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“Dear President Obama,

I truly agree with your sentiments that individuals, such as ex-felons, should be able to receive a second chance at life. Since we all know that one can veer off that path of life and travel along rough, rocky terrain, sometimes running off and ending up in some ditch. We all have made our fill of mistakes and sometimes those held a costly consequence that changed life forever. So we lived through it, trying harder to make things right with family, friends and those around us, but what about those who aren’t able to make things right even if they tried…because they’re labeled as too dirty, a leper, a person who is rejected from society and home.

But what if they’re a seventeen year old and had sex with a fifteen year old, consensual at that? Or they’re a teen that had gotten so enraged after a breakup that he sent out naked pictures of his girlfriend on his cell phone or email? Or an individual urinates where someone just happens to see them?

All are wrong and a travesty but do they deserve the life of no second chance with a registry that ends all. They are labeled, no jobs, no where to live…they have been deemed a menace to society, a plague. These certain circumstances, and many other situations similar to these, I believe still deserve a second change.

Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

After my son’s early release and two years of prison, I thought I had handled that fact graciously knowing after serving his time he would be able to get that fresh start, that second chance. He was an exemplary inmate, GED, college courses and vocational classes. Little did I know that a second chance on the outside was the farthest from the truth? He now struggles and lives in a trailer park sharing a trailer with another and surrounded by others in the same rocking boat, one to float endlessly in shark infested waters. I see him little because of probation requirements (he couldn’t live with us because we were 800 feet near a school). My family is afraid of what would happen to them if he lived with them…vigilantism. My son has no other place to stay since others condemn him of his crime that is screamed from the highest rooftop. Sex offender, sex offender!

Not all sex offenders are pedophiles or predators but some are simply young kids that make one stupid and rash decision that eventually changes everything, and they have no idea what they’ve done until their life is never their own. Exactly, where is that second chance for those sex-offenders who are lumped together with pedophiles and predators? Now, it makes me sick to think of my son’s future and many like him that are on the registry and many with no second chance…ever. I am asking you as a mother and as another concerned citizen of the United States that these laws are looked at again and taken into serious consideration in what they are doing to the Constitution of the United States, not for sex offenders in general but the future rights of every citizen, before anymore are put into effect. They unjustly strip an offender of their rights and place them in a guillotine that can be easily set off by anyone and at anytime. Where is the second chance for ex-sex offenders in the present, pending and future laws?”
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What truly saddens me is the weakness and deterioration of what the sex offense issue is doing to our once, great nation. Across Europe, others are seeing the injustice and disregard of rights, but we ignore this problem and it makes me wonder where humanity is heading….

We have become a hysterical society in which our latest witch-hunt is a sex offender--no matter his/her crime.

Below is a email sent from a foreign advocate to a father of a sex offender:
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“The tragic story of your son's death is just so sad that it's difficult to explain how. It was very hard to read your letters. It seems almost unbelievable that this can take place in a democracy! From our point of view, there is no justice in this. Not in any way: not for you, your son, the former girl friend – or even the state.

It is an abusive legal system. It seems barbaric. And we are so very sorry that this takes place. That's why it's so important for us to try to neutralize the debate with this…, hopefully making some changes. ….. to show the every day life of the sex offenders, trying to show how they keep on being punished, even after served prison time…..But we will for sure tell the story of the injustice that your son has been exposed to.”
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I appreciate everyone's commitment and backing to protect everyone's civil rights, plainly as noted in the Constitution of the United States and is presupposed, giving ALL men are “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”