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U.S. child porn prosecutions soaring

SAN FRANCISCO — FBI Agent Stacie Lane sat at her computer at the FBI headquarters in Maryland one June morning in 2007, launched the notorious file-sharing software LimeWire, typed the search query "10yo" and went hunting for child pornography.

Within an hour, Lane was downloading images from Max Budziak's home computer in San Jose.

Last month, a federal jury in San Jose convicted Budziak, 66, of possessing and distributing child pornography. The former letter carrier with no previous criminal history was immediately taken into custody and is facing a minimum of five years in prison when he is sentenced April 25. Budziak is likely to receive a more severe penalty — a common occurrence with federal child pornography prosecutions because the influential U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines typically advise judges to mete out longer sentences than the minimum.

Defense attorneys, legal scholars and some judges bemoan the prosecution and sentencing developments as draconian for failing to distinguish between hard-core producers of child pornography and hapless Web surfers with mental problems.

"It's not pretty," said the attorney Michael Whelan, who represents Budziak. "There are exceptions, but generally speaking most prosecutions are of a sorry individual with a bad habit."

Prosecutors and child advocates such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children argue the harsh penalties are justified. They say that consumers of child pornography keep the trade alive.

The number of federal child porn cases has exploded during the past 15 years as Congress passed mandatory five-year minimum sentences and federal authorities have declared such investigations a priority.

The FBI has made more than 10,000 arrests since 1996, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reports a similar number of arrests since its creation in 2003. The U.S. Department of Justice says prosecutions are up 40 percent since 2006, resulting in roughly 9,000 cases. In 2009, 2,315 suspects were indicted.

The number of child pornography prosecutions is still dwarfed by drug and immigration cases that flood federal court dockets, but no other crime is growing at the 2,500 percent rate the FBI claims for child porn arrests.

U.S. child porn prosecutions soaring 02/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 7:45pm]

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