Do larger collections of child abuse material lead to longer sentences?

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The Effect of Child Sexual Exploitation Images Collection Size on Offender Sentencing

There were more than 150,000 reports of child sexual exploitation on the Internet between 2008 and 2015 in Canada, with close to a fourfold increase during this period. Alongside the growth in Internet speed and computer storage, there has been a considerable increase in the number of child abuse images listed in police reports. Policing organizations analyze these images to identify victims and to provide information to courts in the hope of securing longer sentences. Image analysis is not only timeconsuming and expensive for police organizations but it also takes time away from other investigations. It is still unclear what impact such exhaustive analysis has on the sentencing of offenders.

Fortin et al. evaluated the effect of the reported number of images on the sentencing of child sexual exploitation material offenders. Their primary goal was to determine whether larger collections of images are associated with more severe sentencing decisions. They were also curious as to which characteristics of child abuse material collections are considered when sentencing offenders accused of possessing such material.

The authors analyzed 101 Quebec cases between 2002 and 2012. They used statistical analysis to determine relationships between the number of images, sociodemographic information, details about the criminal events and prior convictions. The authors further studied in detail the text of 97 Quebec cases extracted from the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) database.

Results suggest that judges are more concerned with whether the offender is, or is on a path towards physically abusing a child, rather than their consumption of illicit material. In cases where a sexual crime occurred prior to or at the time of the offense, no effect from the number of images was observed. However, the number became relevant in the absence of sexual crimes, as the judges needed additional information to evaluate the level of culpability of the offender. In these cases, the number of images and the time spent in the creation and classification of the collection were used to separate the behaviors of an invested offender from those of the curious.

The results suggest that the number of images is not determinant in most decisions. Accordingly, the amount of time police officers devote to classifying unidentified images should be reconsidered if the reason for such effort is to impact sentencing. There may be valid reasons for detailed analysis of the information on seized hard drives (e.g. intelligence-gathering, identifying new victims, spotting new trends) but affecting sentence severity is not one of them.

Image analysis of child abuse material by the police, which is expensive and time-consuming, does generally not impact sentencing and should be reconsidered if it is the intended goal.