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J.J. Prescott research on community notification laws 

Faculty Research: Community Notification Laws May Lead to More Child Pornography

By Lori Atherton

Child pornography crimes differ from other sex offenses, and therefore child pornographers should not be subjected to the same community notification as traditional sex offenders, writes Prof. J.J. Prescott in the recent Federal Sentencing Reporter article, "Child Pornography and Community Notification: How an Attempt to Reduce Crime Can Achieve the Opposite."

While it may seem logical to group together child pornography crimes and other sex offenses because they both seem to be "sexual" in nature, Prescott argues that the crimes are actually quite different in how they are carried out and what makes them successful. Consequently, applying "one-size-fits-all" community notification requirements—more popularly known as public sex-offender registries—to child pornographers isn't a good idea, and may actually increase crime rather than inhibit it.

"One of the takeaways from this article is that we ought to be very careful about who counts as a sex offender for purposes of notification laws," said Prescott, who researches and writes about sex-offender registration and notification laws. "On its own terms, notification seems out of place in this context. Most child pornographers are possessors; they have never attacked children. But, the real concern is that making the identity of convicted child porn possessors public may have the unintended consequence of making it easier for child porn networks to form."

Child pornography, Prescott said, is a "market crime," one that involves money or trade and that actually requires conspiracy by definition, whereas other sex offenses are typically committed by individuals working alone to take advantage of a person in a physical way. Because child pornography crimes hinge on potential offenders having access to others of a like mind and the information they can share, he said, community notification laws may actually lead to more child porn—and, by extension, the sexual abuse depicted in some child pornography—by helping child porn offenders connect with each other.

"What community notification does, essentially, is make public a proven list of potential customers and suppliers of child porn," Prescott said. "We're making it known that there are experienced child pornographers out there, and we're providing their names and crimes to anyone who might want to learn more. Public registries seem to say, 'Hey, if you want to figure out where to find child porn safely, here's a list of people who might be able to help you, who might have learned from their previous apprehension and conviction and can show you the ropes.' To reduce the total amount of child porn, we want to isolate potential child pornographers instead; we want to make it difficult for them to learn about the market and keep them from being able to identify other sellers, buyers, traders, and mentors."

The solution, said Prescott, is to disrupt the networks—in real life and on the Internet—that help to facilitate child pornography and to isolate offenders from each other. "If you can't find other child pornographers—either creators or possessors—and if you feel like you're the only one in the world interested in child pornography, you're not going to consume much child porn. The size of the child porn market will shrink, and the underlying abuse that sustains that market will recede. So rather than applying community notification laws to child pornographers, we should pursue strategies appropriate to the nature of the crime—we should go after the markets."

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