Congress 'Fixes' Child Porn 'Loophole' With 15-Year Prison Sentences For Teen Sexting

from the if-it's-already-broken,-why-not-make-it-worse? dept

Congress agrees (with who, I don't know): to save our nation's children from the scourge of sexting, we much incarcerate our nation's children. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports for Reason, the way to salvation sext-free kids runs through our nation's prison pipelines, where they'll be rehabilitated through the power of life-crippling criminal sentences and accelerated to adulthood via actual sexual assault at the hands of prisoners/guards.

Teens who text each other explicit images could be subject to 15 years in federal prison under a new bill that just passed the House of Representatives. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, has called the measure "deadly and counterproductive."

[...]

Introduced by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) in March, the "Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017" passed the House by an overwhelming majority last week. Only two Republicans—Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky—voted against the bill, along with 53 Democrats.

Yes, you read that right. The bill would add mandatory minimums to child pornography production -- even if both participants are minors. Mandatory minimums would also apply to thoughtcrime. Rep. Bobby Scott -- one of the few opponents of the bill -- was the first to point out that this draconian child porn law would criminalize consensual behavior between teenagers. He also pointed out that the bill seeks to punish "solicitation," which takes this past actual production of forbidden images into the realm of the hypothetical.

What's more, "the law explicitly states that the mandatory minimums will apply equally to an attempt or a conspiracy," Scott noted:

That means if a teenager attempts to obtain a photo of sexually explicit conduct by requesting it from his teenage girlfriend, the judge must sentence that teenager to prison for at least 15 years for making such an attempt. If a teenager goads a friend to ask a teenager to take a sexually explicit image of herself, just by asking, he could be guilty of conspiracy or attempt, and the judge must sentence that teenager to at least 15 years in prison.

As Brown details in her thorough report on the bill, the proposed law is supposed to close a "loophole" that prevented some child porn prosecutions. At least that's what its supporters are saying. In reality, the loophole isn't a loophole, but rather a bad decision made by prosecutors.

19-year-old Anthony Palomino-Coronado was accused of molesting his 7-year-old neighbor repeatedly over the course of several months. In investigating the case, police discovered one photo of the abuse that had been taken and subsequently deleted from Palomino-Coronado's phone.

Combined with the victim's testimony, the photo should have guaranteed state police little trouble in trying to prosecute Palomino-Coronado for sexual abuse of a child. But federal prosecutors preempted such a prosecution by deciding to instead try Palomino-Coronado in federal court for producing child pornography.

It was a bad call—the case "could have been brought in state court and the defendant would have been subjected to extremely long, lengthy prison time," Rep. Scott noted during floor debate. But federal law against producing child pornography requires a minor to have been recruited "for the purpose of" producing photo or video. In this case, the court concluded, the long-term pattern of abuse, combined with the fact that only one explicit image was ever taken (and subsequently deleted), meant the perpetrator's purpose was not producing child porn but, rather, his own sexual gratification. If the feds had simply let the state handle the case as one of sexual abuse, Palomino-Coronado would probably be behind bars right now; instead, they overreached with the child porn charge, and now he's free.

To try to make amends for this prosecutorial blunder, the DOJ is pushing to have this terrible new law enacted. Not that there's any lack of supporters for the idea of tossing teens in jail. Sponsor Mike Johnson cited noted legal expert, the apostle Paul.

Johnson, a freshman congressman (and vocal Trump supporter), dismissed opponents' concern that the measure would be used in ways he didn't intend it to be used. "In Scripture, Romans 13 refers to the governing authorities as 'God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer,'" he said in response to their floor concerns. "I, for one, believe we have a moral obligation, as any just government should, to defend the defenseless."

My guess is Johnson's definition of "defenseless" doesn't cover sexting teens -- not if he's using Biblical authority to shore up his shaky legal assertions. Other supporters are equally as naive, claiming federal prosecutors won't use the law to prosecute sexting teens, blithely ignoring the fact that child porn laws have routinely been misused to do exactly that.

This is the road to hell legislators love to travel. And why not? It's routinely re-paved with good intentions and has lanes wide enough that even the most obtuse legislator can travel comfortably. When it comes to the nation's youth, nothing's too good for them. Our nation's lawmakers are ready to grant them them longer minimum sentences and more ways to avail themselves of one of our nation's oldest traditions: doing federal time on trumped-up charges. After all, you can't be for the children unless you're willing to damn the children. For their own good, of course.

Filed Under: criminal justice, doj, mandatory minimums, punishment, sexting


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  1. icon
    DB (profile), 1 Jun 2017 @ 10:07am

    Errrm, why is this under federal jurisdiction?

    Even in the case cited, it was beyond a stretch to make a federal case of it. The federal law relies on there being distribution that crosses state lines, or uses the mail system. Online distribution commonly is assumed to inherently interstate, but that isn't necessarily true. With no distribution, the cited case shouldn't have been in federal court.

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