On January 22, the Supreme Court heard arguments to determine if individuals convicted for child pornography possession can be held liable to provide victim restitution.
The defendant, Doyle Randall Paroline, was caught with 280 child pornography images that he had downloaded from the Internet. Two of these images depicted “Amy,” a woman sexually abused by her uncle over 10 years ago. Through a victim restitution provision in the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Amy’s lawyers have filed for her to receive compensation for damages resulting from the continued distribution of the images.
As explored in the Urban Institute’s upcoming report, Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities, child pornography offenses have increased dramatically since the advent of the Internet. Through interviews with law enforcement stakeholders and 21 incarcerated child pornography offenders, the Department of Justice-funded study* documents how new methods to access and share child pornography not only affect how offenders conduct their transgressions, but how they understand them. As one respondent explained: “It’s very different from other crimes. You’re not planning anything. You don’t go out of the house. You’re in a secluded room, you feel isolated from the consequences, from the reality of what you’re doing.”
Offenders who did not produce child pornography commonly defended their behavior because in their minds, they were not supporting an illegal activity, only viewing images. In their view, possessing child pornography is victimless. In the words of one respondent: “I think in the back of my mind, a gray area. Yes, it’s illegal, but I’m not producing this. I’m not physically harming anyone is the thought you justify with. I’m just downloading pictures and storing them and putting them away.”
Amy’s damages, totaling nearly $3.4 million, reflect psychological counseling costs and lost wages due to the perpetuation of the images. A 2010 US Department of Justice report to Congress recognizes that “…knowing that all copies of child pornography images can never be retrieved compounds the victimization. The shame suffered by the children is intensified by the fact that the sexual abuse was captured in images easily available for others to see and revictimizes the children by using those images for sexual gratification.”
The Supreme Court’s decision will rest on interpretations to the intent of the VAWA victim restitution statute. Specifically, whether the provision requires a direct link between the defendant’s offense and the victim’s losses.
If the Supreme Court awards Amy full restitution, this could send a message to those downloading images that they did not commit a victimless crime—and that there are consequences to their actions. Providing victim restitution guidelines could not only help victims, but also send that much-needed message to child pornography offenders.
* This project was supported by Award No. 2010-IJ-CX-1674, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice
Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute