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Some judges are so repulsed by Internet child pornography that they refuse to view images seized from offenders prior to sentencing them, according to a senior Ontario Crown attorney.
Prosecutor Alex Smith told a conference of crime victims that while this squeamishness is understandable, many prosecutors believe that these judges pass sentences that are too lax for such a horrendous crime.
"There is no substitute for actually viewing the images," Mr. Smith, the head of the Ministry of the Attorney-General's Internet abuse section, told a Canadian Association for Victim Assistance conference. "You don't realize how bad this stuff is until you have been exposed to it.
"I don't want to be critical of the judicial system, but police are generally disappointed with the sentences meted out in many of these cases," he said. "Certainly, many Crowns are disappointed in the sentences meted out."
Mr. Smith said prosecutors will have to become "more persistent that judges view the images. It is kind of a touchy issue. Viewing this stuff is different from viewing other stuff. I haven't done a child pornography case in six years, but I can still remember some of the images. They stick with you and they haunt you."
His remarks came during a panel session at which Mr. Smith and Ontario Provincial Police Detective-Inspector Angie Howe unveiled a province-wide Internet child pornography strategy they helped develop over the past two years and which is to be launched next week.
The $5-million strategy will feature central co-ordinators who will pool information, resources and investigators from 15 police forces across Ontario. The strategy will replace a hodgepodge of individual police child pornography units that had few resources and precious little ability to share information with one another.
"The offices doing this locally were underequipped," Det.-Insp. Howe said. "There was one poor officer in Hamilton doing this who had to buy his own equipment."
Det.-Insp. Howe and Mr. Smith said the strategy, which has been two years in the making, will feature:
A victim identification unit to collate Internet images of sexually abused children and use the latest techniques in image analysis in order to find and rescue child victims.
Standardized training for all police officers on Internet abuses against children.
A province-wide tip line for children who suspect, or know of, a possible offender.
Training for an initial crop of 20 prosecutors to provide sound advice to police well before they lay charges to make sure they obtain proper evidence.
Links between police and prosecutors, and other government and non-governmental agencies.
An "on-line undercover luring team" that will patrol the Internet, seeking to detect and obtain evidence against offenders.
Det.-Insp. Howe said the ubiquity of the crime and the anonymity of its perpetrators make Internet child pornography offences unique: "It is doctors, it's lawyers, it's cops, it's Crowns, and it's guys who live in their mother's basement and love Star Trek," she said.
While one might expect that offenders will begin taking steps to avoid having any identifying features and locations in their child porn videos, Det.-Insp. Howe said, they will be loathe to do so because the "story lines" they create -- a child who romps naked on the beach or is violated in a bathtub -- are essential to their product.
"By and large, the judicial system isn't very good at recognizing there are victims," Mr. Smith said. "It is often seen as a victimless offence."
Det.-Insp. Howe said that society, including the judiciary, must understand that because of its unique ingredients, Internet child porn is not a complete criminal act, but is rather "a crime in progress."
She described a 14-year-old victim she dealt with who had been persuaded by her 18-year-old boyfriend to pose naked for some photographs. The girl split up with her boyfriend soon afterward, and he created an Internet website devoted to the photographs.
The girl arrived at her school one day to find photocopies of the picture taped to all the lockers, Det.-Insp. Howe said. The mortified victim was plunged into depression and has since abandoned her goal of becoming a schoolteacher, since the photographs can, and probably will, reappear for the rest of her life.
Perpetrators circulate images around the world, Det.-Insp. Howe said, collecting and seeking out specific, horrendous images of rape and other abuse as if they were baseball cards. "They talk to each other, saying things like: 'I'll give you my whole Jordan series if you give me that Isabel picture,' " she said. "The Internet has given them a forum where they can normalize their interest. And this is in the same sandbox where your kids are trading audio clips."
Det.-Insp. Howe said that according to one survey of victims, 76 per cent of them reported that they first encountered the perpetrator in an Internet chat-room. Eighty per cent of perpetrators openly brought up sexual topics, and 70 per cent of them did not lie about their age. Sixty per cent of victims said that they felt "love" for the offenders, Det.-Insp. Howe added.
Part of the blame for inadequate sentences lies with prosecutors who are inexperienced in Internet child porn cases, Mr. Smith said. "We occasionally have Crown attorneys who pick up one of these files for the first time with insufficient guidance," he said. "Often, they do a good job. Sometimes, they don't."
Mr. Smith and Det.-Insp. Howe said that one of the key elements of the provincial strategy will be to educate parents that their children face a serious risk of falling prey to child abusers every time they log onto a chat-line.
"Once a pornographic image of your child is out there, there is no recall button," Mr. Smith said. "And once it has gone to one pervert out there, it gets traded to others. It is always going to be there. It is totally different from any other offence.
"These offences don't occur out there in the cruel world," he said. "They occur in your study or downstairs basement. I don't think the vast majority of parents whose children are being exploited have the foggiest notion until their child has been approached or there are photographs of the child on the Internet. . . . In a sense, it occurs in your child's bedroom, but in another sense, it is occurring in the whole world."