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April 9, 2010

How should we deal with (mature?) teenagers who knowingly download the worst kiddie porn?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing local story from Florida, which is headlined "Teenager pleads guilty to possession of child porn, becomes sex offender." Here is how the piece starts:

Patrick Melton, 17, became a sex offender Thursday after pleading guilty to 50 counts of possession of child pornography.  Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives first learned of Melton's Internet activity in December 2008.  Using a search warrant for his home that following March, they found the images, including one of a man molesting a 2-year-old.

When they tracked Melton down at Tampa Bay Tech, deputies said he admitted downloading them. He told a detective he was 9 years old when an Internet search typo introduced him to child pornography.  He meant to type "hot rods," he said. Instead, he typed "hot bods."

Prosecutor Rita Peters said Melton admitted to authorities that if he had not gotten caught, he might have gone on to touch a child.

Taking into account his age, candor with detectives, stable home environment and the fact that many of the images he viewed were of children within his age bracket, prosecutors offered him a deal: six years of probation with sex offender treatment. Melton took it.

Given the various aggravating factors apparently in the mix here — a long history of downloading, lots of images, image involving very young kids, an admitted interest in molestation — I think there is little doubt that the defendant's age here played a major role in his probation sentence.  But, as spotlighted by other cases from Florida involving severe sentences for teenagers (including two now before the Supreme Court involving LWOP prison terms), Florida prosecutors and judges do not always view teenagers as less culpable than adults.  And there are, of course, statistical reasons to worry that teenager offenders present the highest risk of recidivism.

In light of all these factors, I wonder if readers are generally pleased or generally troubled by the (exceptional?) sentencing outcome in this case.  More broadly, I wonder if folks think there are special reasons that teenagers should get a special break when they are involved in on-line sex crimes.

April 9, 2010 at 10:26 AM | Permalink

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Comments

This kid got a pretty fair deal. I wonder if it’s because he’s 17, or if he was simply lucky enough to encounter a reasonable prosecutor.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Apr 9, 2010 10:31:20 AM

I think it's the latter Mark. What's scary is what would have happened if he had got caught six months later! Then he'd be an adult and be locked up for 30+ years. The age is just the excuse.

It's interesting that when it comes to the DP we look for reasons to kill children as young as 14. But when it comes to sex crimes we begin to look for excuses to let people go (i.e., sexting.)

Perhaps one day we will let go of the worship of magical numbers. But today clearly isn't that day.

BTW, I did not find his story surprising. I've had teenagers as young as 15 tell me that they knew they were pedophiles when they where preteens. I try to explain to them that the way we psychologists define pedophilia that's just not possible. But that is their experience.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 9, 2010 10:47:21 AM

As a federal criminal law paralegal, I think we are missing the goal of rehabilitation in so many cases, especially child porn. Generally speaking, if there is no provable history, I think first offenders should get a sentence designed to give extensive sex offender treatment/counseling/evaluation. Many kiddie porn possessors are just looking. Many would not go on to touch. Sort them out. For a second offense... maybe then these harsh adult sentences are appropriate.

Posted by: Julie | Apr 9, 2010 11:10:57 AM

My instinct is tha Marc Shepherd is correct. I say this never having handled a juvenile case, so my experience in this area is zilch.

On the one hand, having a sexual interest in two year-olds is about as sick as it gets. On the other, his candor in admitting that he was on the way to actual molestation is astonishing. Defendants so seldom tell the whole truth that, when they do, I think getting a break is in order.

That said, this guy is dangerous. He is going to have to be monitored with extreme care and caution. The prosecutor and the court are taking a risk here. If the defendant doesn't stay on the straight and narrow, how likely will they be to do it again? And how likely SHOULD they be?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 9, 2010 11:18:19 AM

I agree with Daniel.. there is a stark difference in understanding between those teenagers that commit sex crimes and those that murder. The idea here is someone under the age of 18 can still effect others with their poor decisions and be held accountable for them. If a 14 yr old kid can shoot his classmates and be tried as an adult, and a 17 year old possesses toddler porn, I would think someone 3 years older than a convicted murderer would receive adult consideration as well. The real problem is when you get into 14-15 year olds having consentual relationships with adults.. if their classmate can make an adult decision to kill and be punished as an adult, why do they put other teenagers making an adult decision to have a relationship with someone 18+yrs in a onesy and a lollipop in their hand? Are they not the same age, and are they not both consenting to a decision that effects others? Absolutely, yet we say this guy who killed can be punished as an adult, whereas someone the same age who pursues an adult relationship has no responsibility for their actions. Double standard? All I know is when I was 14, I wished some 18+ hottie would have swept me off my feet.. and I know that many of the same age feel the same way.. yet the people they involve in that decision get in lots trouble, and they get in none. (Unless they kill someone)Worse yet, the public generally holds sex crimes against a convict more than crimes of violence. Where is the line drawn and why? To protect youngsters? 17 year olds know better than to look at kiddie porn, and 14 year olds should know better than to murder.. they should all be accountable by the same standards. Magic numbers are ridiculous.. Seinfeld never got in trouble for dating his gal because the parents approved and he had money.. why was that not held to the same standard as someone who is not rich? The world is completely double-standard.

Posted by: sari | Apr 9, 2010 2:02:43 PM

He actually got a pretty fair term since he was guilty to 50 charges of kiddie porn. 6 year's probation isn't really enough. I am happy to see people before age 18 getting light sentences, as there not the right age to know what they do is wrong, I mostly put that age from 0-16. That's when you mostly become mature and get out of puberty. But being 17, he should know the rules of kiddie porn, yet he did do it willingly.

Posted by: Hi | Apr 9, 2010 3:24:57 PM

article: "He told a detective he was 9 years old when an Internet search typo introduced him to child pornography. He meant to type "hot rods," he said. Instead, he typed "hot bods.""

me: where were the parents? even in 2002/2003 who was letting a 9 year old on the internet unsupervised? of course, his "innocent" explanation doesn't make a lot of sense - you have to figure that the majority of returns for that search were of images of adults - yet he still picked the images of children as the ones he was interested in. and even as he grew up, he was still into children - no mention that he was looking at adult images too - so despite the age, its obvious this kid is an icky perv. its a good thing that he apparently hasn't victimized any real children yet.

daniel: "I've had teenagers as young as 15 tell me that they knew they were pedophiles when they where preteens. I try to explain to them that the way we psychologists define pedophilia that's just not possible. But that is their experience"

me: sounds like the problem is with the psychological definition - even with a preteen, if someone is interested in a younger child, it should be clear there is something seriously wrong to anybody even if not a textbook icky perv. but it seems that even your patients as children know that their being attracted to children is wrong and not normal - it should be obvious that a 17 year old who has lots of images of young children but no reported images of adults is an icky perv regardless of what the definition is.

sari: "why do they put other teenagers making an adult decision to have a relationship with someone 18+yrs in a onesy and a lollipop in their hand?"

me: maybe its because an extremely large percentage of teen pregnancies and veneral diseases result from such relationships. seriously, a lot of those relationships are seriously predatory.

sari: "All I know is when I was 14, I wished some 18+ hottie would have swept me off my feet.. and I know that many of the same age feel the same way"

me: were you by chance from a poorer/rural area? because that attitute was definitely extremely common where i was from (definitely a poorer rural area) which had a high teen pregnancy rate. of course, that attitute seemed most common in girls who came from lower class homes generally with no relationship with their fathers. again, maybe because its 14 year olds just can't reach the conclusion that should be obvious to an adult woman - if the 20 year guy is such a great catch, how come he's going after 8th Graders and not college students? i don't necessarily think that the adult is an icky perv so much as that the adult in that case is a loser who is seeking a predatory relationship because he cannot suceed in a relationship of equals. teen pregnancies create a huge social cost - especially in cases where the father abandons the mother and child which generally happens in those cases (and even if the father cares chances are he is uneducated and in a lousy/dead end job - again because any sort of decent catch isn't going to be trolling middle schools for girlfriends.

and realistically we are talking relationships where the adult is a man and the child is a girl - there are some relationships between women and boys and they are just as predatory but there is a reason why those stories make the news while stories with a man with a girl don't - its because they are rare.

i mean unless you are still 14 sari, you should know better than to give predators and losers free reign to go after gullible and naive girls. they go after girls who are desperate for any sort of male attention - generally ones with low self esteem perhaps with no father in their life. repealing the statutory rape law is to give those predators free reign over a vulernable population.

sorry to sound so harsh, but there is the fantasy of having a movie, rock, or sports star sweep you off your feet and the reality of being stuck with a child with a deadbeat father who won't even acknowledge you if he sees you in the local wal-mart.

not that it happened to me - i wanted out of my loser hometown as soon as possible and didn't even date until college :)

ginny :)

Posted by: virginia | Apr 9, 2010 4:04:10 PM

Really, he's just lucky he wasn't prosecuted federally, where he surely would not have gotten a probationary sentence on these facts.

Posted by: Jay | Apr 9, 2010 4:20:58 PM

ginny- not harsh at all. My point was that was how I felt at the time, and would have pursued it had the oppty presented itself. The point I was making is I would have made a decision that would have likely ruined someone's life at the time, and I was old enough to know better, but too young to care. And don't mistake me, I don't think its all right, but when I was that age (9th and 10th grade,between 14 and 16 yrs old) plenty of girls were dating guys who had already graduated, but because their family was wealthy or the parents did not care, those guys never got in trouble. I never saw any of them 'trolling the schools' for dates.. if you wanted a guy to notice you, you went to the local pool hall, arcade, restaurant or even WalMart and gave him the eye. The situation was not predatory, it was girls looking for older guys, not vice versa. I guess what I am saying is there is a lot of cries of 'victim' but not coming from the victim themself in that kind of case.. more often than not, it was parents often from broken families using the situation as ammunition against their divorced other half. Almost every gal I knew who was in that situation neither got pregnant nor was coerced into anything, rather they laid what they wanted on the line, many were happy, and only a few got in trouble. Many who did get in trouble did not even know their girlfriend was under 16 until it was too late. Some never even had sex.

Posted by: sari | Apr 9, 2010 6:06:54 PM

Ginny.

Well, I agree with you that some (I would not say a lot) are predatory. But sexual predation isn't anything unique to a relationship where there is a disparity of ages. Nor is anything that's isolated to rural communities. If your position is that men and women together need to get rid of predatory relationships, I'll stand beside you 100%. But age disparity is a terrible proxy for those types of relationships.

On another note, language changes. The point that I was trying to get across was that young people don't think of pedophilia in the way professionals do. For teenagers, it's a term of art that basically means "attracted to someone younger than you;" when we talk about it in terms of adults, we say it is a "May-December relationship". Nowadays, one kid telling another kid he's a "pedophile" that term is not being used in a pejorative or clinical sense.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 9, 2010 6:14:44 PM

I agree with Julie.

Additionally, this case involves someone with a fairly normal background. What about teenagers and young adults who were abused? It's understandable that they might develop an (admittedly unhealthy) interest in these images. This kid was looking at images of "children" in his age bracket (I'm not certain if that means young teenagers or refers back to his interest developing when he was 9).

The other problem is, people are just not on notice of how serious this offense is. I was discussing this with two friends of mine who are not attorneys, and they had no idea what the sentences are. Even among attorneys many of them are only dimly aware of how severe the sentencing is; many don't know about the five year mandatory minimum for receipt charges.

There are some jurisdictions where this outcome wouldn't even be possible. Doug has posted quite a bit about Arizona, with a ten year mandatory minimum for each image with every count running consecutively. This kid would have been locked up forever.

As it stands, he will need to register as a sex offender, he'll undergo sex offender therapy for six years and his development will be stunted, if not ruined altogether. He'll be 23 when all is said and done.


Posted by: Alec | Apr 10, 2010 11:28:10 AM

Yes, and if he makes it to 23, he will likely see 4-5 changes in sex offender laws during that time, all of which the blood-thirsty public and fear-filled politicians up for re-election will want applied retroactively. Let's face it, there is no hope for any sex offender to rehabilitate.. they will all be crushed by laws that will make it impossible to live, regardless of the severity of their crime, laws that are based on the actions of a select well-televised few (Chelsea King case and others)that effect the great many . I was in the military, and in boot camp, when one person messed up, all got punished because we were a team.. but that was 20 years ago, and I have not experienced anything like that anywhere else. How is it legal that 90-95% get re-punished for the actions of a few? Especially when there is no real data that proves all SO's must reoffend.. that's a theory being pushed on us by scared soccer moms, zealous prosecutors and their 'expert witnesses' who MAY have studied 20 people (not 700,000) and of course, politicians afraid of repercussion for 'going easy on the perverts.' Too bad the constitution says you can't punish retroactively, and its a real shame that we can just ignore parts of the constitution we don't agree with at this time. If it was about 'doing the right thing', then John Walsh would not be on TV talking about how ALL sex offenders need explosives placed in their anus, so they can be blown up whe they get too near a school. No, it is about stoking the fires of hysteria and having a dog to kick. Good luck kid, I don't approve of what you di at all.. but I also believe in redemption, I just don't see how, in this system, you are supposed to find any.

Posted by: tbucket | Apr 10, 2010 11:55:47 AM

I can't help to smell the bullshit. "admitted to authorities that if he had not gotten caught, he might have gone on to touch a child." I think we ought to ask for a transcript of the interrogation, before we take the prosecutor at its word. The kid would have admitted to being capable of anything under those circumstances. They snatched him outside a store, away from his parents and any "adult" capable of giving him advice. He must have been scared out of his mind. They probably asked about having sex with people around his age range, and said yes.

They say most of the images were in his age range, but yet they emphasize the one of a 2 year old. As sick and perverted 2 year old being abused is, it cannot define what he is attracted to. If he had had more disturbing images in addition to the 2 year old, you can be sure they would have let us know.

The kid made the right choice in taking the plea deal, because it was very generous, but I still think he should not have been prosecuted for it, unless he was a heavy consumer of "real" child pornography.

And Ginny,

seriously, go out into the real world and examine the practicality of your argument. 14 year old are not innocent naive children. I agree, they cannot be expected to reason as adults, but they are sexually awake and fully capable of consenting to sexual activity. Many "first world countries" have the age of consent at 14/15, and yet they have less pregnancy and STD rates than the U.S. Spain and Holland are some of those countries in case you wish to look it up.

Posted by: E | Apr 10, 2010 12:09:18 PM

Spend time, resources and attitudes about people who are looking at pictures. Then one takes the eye off the ball of those who are stealing small amounts from millions of people, screwing children (not looking at them) and those who are making off with the big money (the Madhoffs).

Posted by: mpb | Apr 10, 2010 8:44:34 PM

Alec --

"...he'll undergo sex offender therapy for six years and his development will be stunted, if not ruined altogether."

Inasmuch as he's admitted that he was on the way to actual molestation, I sure HOPE his "development" gets stunted.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 10, 2010 11:49:55 PM

Bill,

I'm not sure I believe that he was likely to molest. The prosecutor stated that he made that admission to authorities, but that didn't appear to be a consideration at sentencing. Certainly, that's an outcome everyone has an interest in avoiding, but let's keep in mind that his interest began at the age of 9; even at 17 he is considered victim age for purposes of the pornography laws, even in states that set the age of consent at 17 or below. I'd like to know more before making a future dangerousness assessment.

Posted by: Alec | Apr 13, 2010 10:27:33 AM

Ya pretty lucky, probation only? In Florida? He is 17, so that's a tough one.

Posted by: justin | Apr 22, 2010 2:08:10 AM

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