Lawmakers say Virginia judges being too lenient on people possessing child porn

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Beginning July 1 last year, people convicted of possession of child porn were subject to more lenient punishments after sentencing guidelines for the charge were reduced.

“We think that that decision is irresponsible; it affects public safety,” said Camille Cooper with the National Association to Protect Children.

Cooper supports bills including SB 1278 that aim at making sentencing guidelines what they were prior to last year’s changes.

69e0fe8bf65447a992bebe06f387d3e2“The offenders that are being arrested and convicted on these charges have images of children under 12 being penetrated,” Cooper said. “Sometimes the victims are as young as infants and toddlers.”

Senator Ryan McDougle, who is sponsoring SB 1278, added, “that is something we all feel very strongly we need to do everything we can to stop. As a former prosecutor and one with a 5-year-old daughter, I thought it was really important that guidelines remain at the higher level where we had them in previous years.”

So, why the change? Since 1994, judges have looked at sentencing guidelines put forth by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (VCSC) for a variety of charges. The commission looks at punishments doled out by judges across the state over time. For every charge, there are judges that go above or below guidelines.

6287e5262e1e407997c5653bc529edbf

The commission will look at a specific code if the number of judges deviating from guidelines is out of the ordinary. If the numbers skew up, the commission recommends increasing the benchmark for punishment. If they skew down, they recommend reducing the benchmark for punishment.

“The sentencing commission goes where the data takes us,” Meredith Farrar-Owens, director of the VCSC, said while testifying at the General Assembly on Monday.

718d4397e0f2481683d8a28b294c061f“The legislation would indeed set a precedent. The general assembly has not enacted any legislation directing the commission to modify the sentencing guidelines.”

8News legal analyst Russ Stone said he’s concerned the bill could do away with guidelines long term.

“They’re not supposed to be subject to the whims of the legislature and their desire to be tough on crime,” Stone said. “Well next year it could be something else, it could be theft, grand larceny, eluding the police, anything they decide.”

But Cooper says regardless of the numbers, she doesn’t believe punishments for possessing child porn should be more lenient.

“They don’t understand that for every image that an offender possesses it creates a market demand for new images and the only way to get new images is by the new rape of a child victim,” Cooper said.

SB 1278 will be heard next Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee. A house version of the bill exists but has yet to be scheduled to be heard.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

Never miss another Facebook post from 8News

Find 8News on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; send your news tips to iReport8@wric.com.