On Thursday, a Florida circuit court sentenced Daniel Enrique Guevara Vilca, a stockroom clerk whose home computer contained a cache of child pornography, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
However, the severity has led some criminal justice experts to question whether the crime fits the punishment.
“To me, a failure to distinguish between people who look at these dirty pictures and people who commit contact offenses lacks the nuance and proportionality I think our law demands,” said Douglas Berman, a Ohio State University law professor, on his blog, Sentencing and Law Policy.
By Florida state law, possession of child porn is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Vilca, 26, who had no previous criminal record, was charged with 454 counts of possession, each count for each image culled from his hard drive.
“Too many people just look at this as a victimless crime, and that’s not true,” said Steve Maresca, the assistant state attorney. “These children are victimized, and when the images are shown over and over again, they’re victimized over and over again.”
But the attorney for the defense didn’t think so.
“Daniel had nothing to do with the original victimization of these people; there is no evidence that he’s ever touched anybody improperly, adult or minor,” said Lee Hollander, Vilca’s lawyer. “Life in prison for looking at images, even child images, is beyond comprehension.”
Hollander noted that most people assume someone who downloads child pornography will sexually molest a child, a philosophy often shared by judges.
According to Troy K. Stabenow, an assistant federal public defender in Missouri’s Western District, many “passive” child pornographers never take action, and not all convicted pedophiles have been fueled by porn.
“I’m not suggesting that someone who looks at child pornography should just walk,” he said. “But we ought to punish people for what they do, not for our fear.”
State and federal laws base penalties on the number of pornographic images of young children - the Fed advocates a minimum of 57 to 71 months in prison for possession of 600 or more images - but with the proliferation of the internet, it is rare nowadays that a case does not involve hundreds, or even thousands, of images.
“A life sentence is what we give first-degree murderers,” said Stabenow. “And possession of child pornography is not the equivalent of first-degree murder.”
Vilca refused a plea bargain of 20 years in prison, after which the state increased the charges. According to his lawyer, the sentence will be appealed.