The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that the Department of Justice has identified a "dramatic" increase in prosecutions for sex offenses against children since the 1990s. Does that mean more of these crimes are being committed?
Not necessarily -- even the law enforcement officers interviewed didn't think so. Instead, the increase can apparently be attributed to a combination of aggressive law enforcement and, believe it or not, the introduction of the Internet. Online activity has made it easier to find alleged child sex offenders -- and easier for law enforcement to set up sting operations.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office is notorious for its online sexual predator sting operations, and other local police, the FBI and other federal agencies, and numerous special task forces are all cracking down on child sex offenses in Central Florida.
In fact, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida, which covers Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Ocala, and Naples, has made the prosecution of these crimes a top priority. Between Oct. 2012 and June 2013, the U.S. Attorney brought 119 such cases -- the most of any federal court in the nation.
Yet these very public, very humiliating accusations are often based on questionable evidence and can destroy the reputations of innocent people. The Internet has indeed made child pornography more available. The federal laws on receiving and possessing child pornography are very serious. The receipt of child pornography carries a 5 year mandatory sentence and a maximum of 20 years. The law defines a child as anyone under 18 years old. It can indeed be a valuable law enforcement tool -- but it isn't perfect. As we all know, the Internet is subject to hacking, misattribution and lies.
We don't see "dragnets" anymore, because far too many innocent people were caught in those nets. Online sexual predator sting operations, however, may be the modern-day equivalent of dragnets. Sometimes, overzealous officers have been known to maneuver innocent people into making apparently damning statements that the accused simply had no intention of making. What police see as vigorous police tactics can later be demonstrated to have been manipulation or even entrapment.
A bedrock principle of justice is that an individual cannot be charged with a crime unless there is specific, lawfully-gathered evidence that indicates a substantial likelihood of guilt. This principle is absolutely crucial in cases involving offenses like these, where the mere accusation carries social stigma and personal consequences before a trial is even held.
Source: Orlando Sentinel, "Extreme child predators thrive online despite aggressive crackdowns," Amy Pavuk, Oct. 25, 2013