The good people of America were rightly furious when news emerged last month that an Iowa man convicted of molesting more than a dozen children — ranging in ages from one to 13 — would be released because he was undergoing transgender hormone therapy. Americans would be even shocked to know that the leniency shown to the Iowa predator is not an exception. It’s more like the rule.
That’s because this country often treats child predation like an illness. Yes, these predators are “sick,” and many suffered abuse as children. But treating the problem like a disease has put too much focus on rehabilitating criminals and too little focus on keeping children safe.
Consider that a man who rapes an adult woman is sick also. Yet just imagine the uproar if such a criminal were sent to expensive rehabilitation, serving only a few months in jail. All sorts of activist groups would cry foul, and the story would get national media attention, which would shame the judge and prosecutor.
Nobody argues an offender against an adult needs “rehabilitation.” They correctly argue for the offender to be thrown in jail, and for the jail key to be sunk to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Not so for cases involving children. They have no voice, few lobbyists, and little state-level data to document crimes against them. Where data is available, it shows America is failing children.
States Aren’t Tough on Child Predators
In 2016, the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT) spent tens of thousands of dollars compiling sentencing data from 2007 to 2016 for one state, Minnesota. PROTECT’s sentencing data for crimes against children are separated into three buckets: criminal sexual conduct (rape), child sexual abuse imagery, and trafficking.
Right off the bat, the reader should notice that trafficking is not the entire threat. Here, the national conversation has so far missed the point. The media gives a lot of attention to sex trafficking, especially of minors. Sex trafficking is a huge problem, and more government resources focused on stopping it is a wonderful thing. But too little attention is being paid to the child-predator threat overall.
For criminal sexual conduct involving a child under the age of 13, data shows that in most Minnesota counties, offenders are being given a stay (probation) and no prison time 50 to 60 percent of the time. Some of these offenders are even receiving a stay of imposition, reducing the crime to a misdemeanor, and not required to register as sex offenders. Far too often, the offender is even placed back in the home with the children he victimized.
Even when prison is the outcome in the 40 to 50 percent of these cases, the sentences are often too short. In response, prosecutors claim some cases are hard to prosecute and that it’s sometimes hard to get a young child to take the stand. This is sometimes true. But prosecutor John Choi in Ramsey County has a starkly better record than other prosecutors in populous Minnesota counties.
This excuse also doesn’t work for child abuse imagery or materials. Here you only need a technical expert to take the stand, and it’s more or less an open-and-shut case.
Nevertheless, with child abuse imagery or materials, well more than 90 percent of predators are granted stays in most counties. This isn’t just policing what people look at, says Grier Weeks, a senior executive at PROTECT. The material being traded online depicts the violent abuse, torture, and rape of young children — even toddlers. The material, says Weeks, should break our hearts. It is “far worse than heroin or meth. … It’s like anthrax.”
The predators viewing this material are an active threat to children around them. Not only that, according to research compiled by PROTECT, at least 55 percent of those found possessing and sharing child abuse imagery are also “contact offenders” with local child victims, or “dual offenders.”
On trafficking, the data is also awful — although, according to PROTECT, some of this Minnesota data may have treated prostituted teens, adults, and johns all as “offenders,” which may cloud the data. Nevertheless, even on trafficking, the stark difference between Choi’s record and other Minnesota prosecutors is telling. Overall, PROTECT says this is one area more data needs to be collected. For more analysis on the Minnesota data, read my article here.
Underfunding the Fight Against Predators
Because this issue is national — child abuse crosses both state and national lines — the federal government needs to be involved. As stated above, much attention is being paid to child trafficking, but the federal government has done far too little to fight back against child abuse materials and imagery.
Today, the United States has 61 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces, made up of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials and prosecutors. The program is administered by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) within the Department of Justice. An ICAC requires recognition from the OJJDP, which necessitates a federal grant — so by definition, ICACs require federal funding.
But on this one thing, the federal government has been incredibly stingy. Right now, the federal government spends only $30 million per year on the ICACs, out of $85 million spent overall for child-rescue programs, which includes the quasi-governmental National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
To put that in perspective, the federal government spent $85 million to build an unfinished hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, while the overall War in Afghanistan costs nearly $50 billion per year. It spends nearly $70 million on “wild horse management” every year and about $100 million annually on “fetal tissue research,” which subsidizes abortion providers.
Because federal grants never cover all the costs of an ICAC unit, state and local money typically covers personnel, buildings, cars, and even equipment. As a result, PROTECT, which helped pass the 2008 law that authorized the ICACs, has also helped to pass a law — dubbed “Alicia’s law” — in at least 12 states, creating a dedicated revenue stream for the ICACs.
‘Tens of Thousands’ of Uncaught Predators
One huge problem is the lack of resources to ICACs, and it isn’t because the ICACs aren’t effective. In just one national sting operation in 2019, named “Broken Heart,” law enforcement made more than 1,700 arrests and rescued 357 children.
“I would stress that I consider the work ICACs do — detecting and interdicting online child exploitation — to be the most effective child sexual abuse prevention tool ever devised,” says Weeks. “As you know, at least 55% of possessors are hands-on abusers, and for some types of imagery, the rate is much higher.”
According to Weeks, in the last few years, due to underfunding, the ICACs have nearly ceased their most promising work: proactive investigations of the most dangerous offenders. Weeks says this is because cyber tips from internet providers — sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which forwards the tips to the appropriate ICAC — have increased exponentially. More than 18 million tips were received in 2018 alone. Even though 80 percent of these tips are “non-actionable,” the ICACs are under pressure to triage and work them, partly because 20 percent are actionable.
Yet this focus is “often to the exclusion of opening proactive investigations of suspects they have in their own databases,” Weeks explains. According to Weeks, children’s lives are hanging in the balance:
ICAC investigations have located tens of thousands of suspects who could be arrested and easily prosecuted for distribution of child abuse imagery. Those arrests would rescue tens of thousands of American children and prevent predictable atrocities against many more. Yet, over 90% of those leads are not being investigated, due to sheer lack of resources.
Weeks says the ICACs can see a map of where many of the predators are. One of PROTECT’s handouts gives an example. It’s overwhelming.
America needs a war on child predators, and smart politicians looking to run on something people actually care about should get on board.
What Governments Need to Do
First, the federal government needs to properly fund the ICACs — $100 million instead of $30 million would be a start. Despite the ICACs’ success, the Department of Justice has consistently refused to ask Congress for more ICAC funding. For example, Weeks reports sitting down with former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein promised action, but the DOJ’s next budget request asked for only a nominal increase of ICAC funding.
Next, every state should pass a version of Alicia’s Law. The federal government should fund the ICACs, but states also need to have skin in the game. Smart federal legislation could even come up with some kind of federal dollar-matching program to incentivize states to conduct quality control on ICACs — to bring in another shareholder aside from the DOJ.
Finally, states need tougher penalties against those who hurt kids. State sentencing on child sex crimes is too lenient, but prosecutors aren’t being held accountable because nobody is collecting data. Every state legislature should require data to be collected on sentences for child predators.
States have too often placed a huge emphasis on rehabilitation, an industry that makes serious money. It claims great results, but the rehabilitators are really just saying that only a certain percent of predators get caught again. And far too often, states will put a “rehabilitated” predator back into the home with the victimized children. What are the chances these children, who are now basically hostages, will report something again?
States also need mandatory minimums for those caught trading child abuse materials and imagery. Right now, only the federal criminal code has a mandatory minimum of five years for this crime. In effect, many states have decriminalized this material, but there are discrepancies. Arizona has tough penalties, and prosecutors in Virginia can stack charges, but in Minnesota, the statute on these awful materials isn’t even in the criminal section of the law. It’s so bad that law enforcement officers consistently say they need to get the feds involved if they actually want a predator to be locked up for any significant period of time.
Here, there’s no excuse for state inaction. Federal prosecutors say these mandatory minimums help them, not hinder them. These minimums are also targeted — structured not to go after the teenage sexter, for instance — and people don’t stumble across this material randomly.
If states have a problem with minimums, state politicians should fight for minimums for when the material depicts sadistic acts and torture. According to Weeks, most of the bad guys have this sort of material. This stuff is straight from hell, and states and the federal government should treat it as such.
What Normal People Can Do
Here’s what the average person can do: Search your state law, and see what the penalties are for child abuse materials and imagery. If the verbiage is something like “zero to 10 years” across the board, there’s no minimum, and your state may be handing out probation to 90 percent of offenders, just like Minnesota is.
First, lobby for your state law to mirror federal law. Second, lobby for the passage of Alicia’s Law in your state, which will set up a dedicated stream of state funds to the local ICAC.
Concerned citizens should also look up how much their state is spending on rehabilitation, realizing that state legislators not acting on toughening the law probably have the rehabilitation industry whispering in their ear. Push for a law that keeps predators from being put back into homes with children they have victimized, if the state doesn’t already have such a law.
Next, push the legislature to pass a law requiring data collection on sex crimes against minors, the prosecutor and judge involved in each case, and the sentence received. It’s hard to tell how bad your state is without collecting the data, which may get prosecutors’ and lawmakers’ attention if it’s recorded.
In general, talk to law enforcement officers or a lawmaker you trust, and see if they are willing to help. Law enforcement officers especially will be happy if someone draws attention to this topic. They have to deal with this awful material, and it is more than frustrating for them when the bad guys aren’t put away.