Bring state laws up to date

The images are so brutal, Snohomish County prosecutor Mark Roe says, that they can reduce hardened prosecutors to tears.

Child pornography, long a back-alley industry, is being brought out of the shadows by its perpetrators via the Internet. Today, it’s just a few clicks away from any sicko who gets a depraved thrill from it. Many of them, studies indicate, end up assaulting children directly.

Washington law needs to keep pace, and that’s what a proposal by Attorney General Rob McKenna would do. Substitute House Bill 2424 would create a new offense of intentionally viewing over the Internet images depicting minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

It also toughens existing penalties by clarifying that under current laws prohibiting the possession or dealing of child pornography, each item is considered a separate violation. That’s in response to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that possession of any amount of child pornography, no matter how many different victims are depicted, can only be charged as a single count.

A recent hearing before the House Public Safety &Emergency Preparedness Committee offered a chilling education in how the advent of digital photography and the Internet have given new life to a despicable global industry by making production and distribution so easy. Prosecutors who have dealt with this stuff for years described acts of exploitation and assault so unspeakable that they’re beyond most people’s imagination. Some even include infants. These are not innocent photos of children in the bathtub.

Concerns that someone who might inadvertently see an image on their computer screen could be prosecuted are addressed in the bill. A pattern of such viewing would have to be established, something modern computer forensics can easily determine.

The aim, Roe told the committee, is to counter a defendant who claims that “Oh, I inadvertently stumbled upon the same image of the same naked child 184 times in a three-day period.”

It’s already a crime to possess child pornography on your computer’s hard drive. McKenna points out, though, that perpetrators get around this by sharing access to such images on remote computers, where they’re not stored. This bill would close that loophole.

Fundamentally, it seeks to create penalties tough enough to reduce demand for such filth. Attacking the market for child pornography, it is hoped, will result in fewer young victims.

For their sake, the Legislature should act this session to give law enforcement tools it needs to fight the most reprehensible creeps in cyberspace.