Bernie Ward pled guilty yesterday to a single charge of distributing child pornography and will remain under house arrest until a sentencing hearing in August. It's expected that he'll be sentenced to a minimum of five years in federal prison, and he could receive as much as nine years.
I've posted about this case several times. I've learned more about it since my previous entries. I've come to believe that Bernie has been a troubled man for years and has shown a self-destructive propensity. Furthermore, I agree with those who say that child pornography is egregious exploitation of children and cannot be tolerated.
But the question that comes to mind is how the law should deal with those who are involved with it. I was listening to a talk radio program this morning on KGO, Bernie's old station. One of the guests was a former FBI profiler and child sex abuse investigator. Her stance was that any adult intentionally involved to any degree in child pornography deserves to have the book thrown at him.
I can understand where she's coming from. She's investigated very serious cases of child pornography and seen firsthand the awful and permanent damage that this kind of exploitation can wreak on a child's psyche. And she makes a good point when she says that the child victim continues, in a sense, to be exploited and violated every time his or her image or video is passed along to someone else.
However, it seems to me that the law needs to consider more than it does the motives behind someone's involvement with child pornography as well as the extremity of the pornography and the degree or frequency of one's involvement with it. For instance, the only pornographic image in Bernie's case that I've seen described in any detail is of a topless woman, a naked teenage boy, and a fully clothed young girl, and they were not engaged in any kind of sexual or simulated sexual acts. Contrast this with a video of a prepubescent child being, say, gang raped. Possessing and even distributing the former seems far, far less egregious than possessing and distributing the latter; yet, I'm of the impression that the law makes little or no distinction between the two.
Another issue that came to mind as I listened to this morning's program concerns what kind of sentence offenders in general and Bernie in particular should be dealt for their crimes. The talk show host opined that Bernie appears to be a sick man in need of treatment but that this in no way "exonerates" him for his actions. But the question I continue to struggle with is, If someone commits a crime because he's sick, why does he deserve to be punished for it? Treated? Yes. We treat people for sickness and its symptoms. But punished? Should we punish people for being sick and for exhibiting the symptoms of their sickness?
The only reason I can see for punishing someone for their sickness is if the punishment is either part of the cure or, in the case of incarceration, quarantines the sick person from harming others with his sickness. But then, we're not talking about punishment per se but about aversive conditioning as treatment or about protective confinement, and that treatment or confinement is made as compassionate and merciful as possible while retaining its efficacy.
But is nine or even five years in federal prison merciful treatment (or punishment) for Bernie and his sickness? Not only that, but is it more effective than one year in prison or in a more humane institution of some kind or even under continued house arrest. Think of what this man has already suffered. He will never get to do talk radio again. He will never be able to teach children again in public or private school. He'll have to permanently register as a sex offender and be subject to all of the restrictions and indignities that go with it. He will probably be treated as a pariah by a large part of the community and will feel ashamed in public for the rest of his life. Would increasing his time of incarceration significantly increase the deterrent effect of his sentence? Would a nine year or twenty year sentence do that much more to deter him when he gets out or to deter others from committing this kind of offense, or does increasing the sentence yield diminishing returns of deterrence and quickly become unjustified punishment or vindictiveness for punishment's or vindictivenesses sake? I wonder if any persuasive scientific studies have been done on this question--i.e., the effect of prison sentence length on deterrence.
It seems to me, as it did to another guest on today's talk show, that Bernie's sentence is "draconian". In other words, it's far, far more harsh than what he deserves or than what is needed to bring optimal benefit to society.
What do you think?
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