CINCINNATI — Some people convicted in Internet sex stings get little or no jail time, reflecting a legal debate about what to do with online predators who are caught soliciting police posing as teens, a newspaper reported Sunday.
Critics say the stings produce victimless crimes because police end up nabbing online predators who act on fantasy or curiosity but don’t actually molest a child, an argument that angers prosecutors.
Authorities have made at least 141 Internet sex-sting busts in five southwest Ohio counties from 2003 through 2006. An analysis of 46 cases revealed that 20 percent of offenders ended up with no jail time at all, according to a story published by The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Twenty offenders were sentenced to three months or less, with the majority of those getting a month in jail.
Police and prosecutors say this same sentencing trend is playing out across the country while online attempts to lure children into sex have soared.
Complaints to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children CyberTipline about online enticement of children more than doubled from 2,664 in 2005 to 6,384 last year.
No national studies have tracked sentencing for online predators, said Lori McPherson, a senior attorney handling online crimes against children for the National District Attorneys Association.
“This is just a cutting-edge area of the law,” McPherson said. “Some states don’t even have laws that specifically cover Internet luring at this point.”
Sentencing in southwest Ohio is all over the board, The Enquirer said.
Men caught in Internet stings usually face felony charges of importuning and attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. Conviction for importuning means a possible year behind bars. For both charges, the maximum sentence jumps to 2½ years.
But prison time isn’t mandatory.
A sampling of cases showed that sentences in Hamilton and Butler counties ranged from probation to six months in jail, the newspaper said.
Judges say they aren’t sure how to punish online predators or how to predict whether they are truly a threat.
“There’s so much junk that goes on on the Internet, it’s really hard for judges to get a handle on (this kind of crime). Are we catching people that would otherwise molest children or are we sort of creating the opportunity for a crime that never existed before?” said Warren County Common Pleas Judge James Flannery.
“Would they have done something, or are they just kind of voyeurs on the Internet? We don’t have a crystal ball that tells us the right answer,” Flannery said.
Most of the men involved don’t even have a speeding ticket on their records. That’s a strong mark in their favor when they are sentenced, Flannery said.
Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel disagrees with light sentencing, citing a study for the U.S. Department of Justice that says online predators lure 20 to 30 children into sexual situations before they get caught.
“The sentences need to reflect the potential for harm. We just happened to catch them before they did it. But, they shouldn’t get credit for that, and they are,” Hutzel said.