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No Breaks for Child-Porn Criminals
Victims deserve full restitution from distributors and possessors.


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Senator Rob Portman

Child pornography is a horrific crime that forever robs children of their innocence. Over the years, Congress has enacted laws both to criminally punish people who possess or trade in child pornography and to require criminals to fully compensate their victims for the damage they have caused. A Supreme Court decision last week, however, severely undermined these laws, making it more difficult — if not impossible — for victims to recover restitution from the convicted criminals who continue to harm them.

Restitution is critical for victims of child pornography, many of whom require expensive ongoing psychological treatment for emotional scars that never truly heal. One of those victims is a woman who goes by the pseudonym “Amy.” When Amy was four years old, her uncle began to sexually abuse her, and he photographed the abuse. This abuse continued for five years, until her uncle was finally arrested.

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It’s hard to imagine the trauma Amy endured, but she fought back. After years of difficult therapy, she managed to lead a semblance of normal life, doing well in her new high school and becoming, to all outward appearances, an ordinary teenager. But then, when she was 17, photographs of Amy’s abuse taken by her uncle began to circulate among child-pornography rings via the Internet. Amy suffered a breakdown and fell into a deep depression. It is estimated that thousands of individuals around the world are now in possession of photographs of Amy’s abuse. As she testified in court, every day “it’s like I am being abused over and over again.”

But Amy fought back — again. Using a provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that requires mandatory restitution, Amy began to pursue restitution against those convicted of possessing images of her abuse. This provision made use of the longstanding principle of joint and several liability. According to this doctrine, when a group of people harms someone, each member of the group is responsible for the full restitution owed to the victim. If one of the abusers feels he has paid too much, he can take it up in court in a lawsuit against his fellow abusers. Our main concern is taking care of the victim’s needs.

That was the intent of the restitution clause passed by Congress. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that Congress had not spoken clearly enough and held that these criminals are not individually responsible for fully compensating their victims. As the dissenting justices recognized, this could mean that Amy “will be stuck litigating for years to come” if she is ever to fully recover from those who have harmed her.

There will be some debate over whether the Court correctly interpreted VAWA. But for Amy and thousands of others who have suffered because of child pornography, that debate doesn’t really matter. They want to know if Congress can fix this. Fortunately, we can.

In my time in the Senate, I have found that while Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on a lot of things, we can come together to protect vulnerable children who have been abused or exploited. I’ve seen it firsthand as co-chair with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) of the Human Trafficking Caucus, as lead sponsor of an amendment included in VAWA to secure housing for children who are victims of sexual exploitation, and through my work on bipartisan efforts to give kids who are abused or traumatized the help they need to recover and start the life they deserve. Party lines shouldn’t divide us when the safety of our children is at stake, and now we need to ensure that the victims of child pornography are not forgotten.

In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to make it unmistakably clear that those who create or possess child pornography cannot hide from their victims by blaming others for the harm they have done. A member of a gang that beats a woman senseless cannot escape responsibility by claiming that he only threw a few punches, or that the injuries would have been suffered whether he was present or not. Those who engage in the distribution and possession of child pornography do not act alone. They operate as a network, a gang of criminals, prowling the back alleys and dark corners of the Internet, with no concern about whom they harm or the damage they do. They do not deserve special treatment. Whether it’s through joint and several liability, a statutory minimum for damages, or some other mechanism, the victims of child pornography deserve to be made whole.

Amy will never fully recover from what was done to her when she was a child, and she can never regain the innocence that was stolen from her. But we can ensure that those who continue to victimize her today will be the ones who pay for the counseling and the lost wages she will suffer for the rest of her life. That is the cost of the crime they have committed, and the law of the land should demand that it is paid in full.

— Senator Rob Portman is the junior senator from Ohio.



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