Who commits an Indecent Image offence?
Predatory paedophiles in waiting
In 1978, when the current law was enacted which prohibits the making, showing, distribution or publication of indecent images, the prospect of there being millions of such images available on the internet could not have been imagined. At that time, the lawmakers were concerned with photographs, in the traditional sense, images produced in physical form which could be sent, swapped or secretly retained by those who had a sexual interest in them. The furtiveness involved in the acts of seeking out or collecting photographs of child abuse meant that such offenders were automatically labelled as likely child abusers themselves, predatory paedophiles in waiting. Prosecutions relating to indecent images were relatively rare, certainly by today’s standards and, when they did take place, the local press would inevitably be present at court, ready to name and shame the culprit. A prison sentence would inevitably follow.
A Twenty-First Century offence
Indecent images offences, as prosecuted in our criminal courts on a daily basis in the 2020’s, are a rather different thing. The physical photograph has been replaced by the digital image. The furtive seeking out, swapping and collecting of the images now takes place entirely online. The “making” of an unlawful image often refers to the reproduction of an image that has been in circulation for months, or perhaps years, as opposed to actually taking the photo. The Police maintain a Child Abuse Image Database (CAID) into which they list every new unlawful image so that future detection becomes easier and faster. It is because of CAID that we know there are millions of child abuse images in existence today. Offenders are tracked down in every corner of the UK by dedicated police units called POLIT (Paedophile On-Line Investigation Teams). Criminal Courts hear the resulting cases with alarming regularity. With that background, it is perhaps surprising that prison sentences are not necessarily inevitable, especially for first time offenders.
The Internet takes a share of the blame
The internet is the reason for the dramatic increase in images, the accessibility of them and consequent prosecutions. It is also the reason why prison is no-longer necessarily the starting point for sentence. The internet has not only altered how this type of offence is committed but it has impacted on who commits these offences and, perhaps most importantly, why they commit them. Like it or not, the image of the dangerous paedophile, the social outcast, the loner, the child molester in waiting no-longer fits the bill (if it ever really did). In 2022, indecent image offences are as likely to be committed by a married man with children, holding down a respectable full time job and with absolutely no intention of ever abusing a child themselves. In fact, the vast majority of modern day indecent image offenders would be sick at the thought of harming a real child. This does not make them blameless. It is generally accepted that the market in child abuse images fuels the abuse itself. So why has the increased prevalence of this offence not led to more punitive sentences?
The move from physical photo to digital image has led to a disconnect between the viewing of images of abuse and the real harm caused to the very real children depicted. In a world where the internet enables users to view pornographic images to satisfy every conceivable sexual interest, where the depraved can swiftly become the norm and where ready access can quickly lead to desensitisation, it is hardly surprising that unlawful images can fall into the hands of (or, in reality, be downloaded onto the screens of) otherwise entirely law-abiding people. Most of these offenders know that they are doing something wrong but they would recoil in horror at the suggestion they are perpetuating the abuse itself. There is a sense that, if the image is already there, the damage has already been done.
A growing understanding
The change in the way these cases are investigated by the police and prosecuted through our courts, reflects a growing understanding of the effect of the internet and of the descent from lawful pornography into “taboo” areas and ultimately into illegal material. The impact of the internet on addictive behaviour, both feeding and encouraging it, means that indecent image offenders can no-longer be pigeon-holed as predatory paedophiles or even likely repeat offenders. The 12 to 18 month process of arrest, investigation, prosecution and conviction, usually does more than enough to wake the guilty party from their addictive trance. If that is not considered sufficient, the added precaution of years on the Sex Offenders’ Register, compliance with a Sexual Harm Prevention Order (SHPO) and a programme of offence focused rehabilitation, overseen by the Probation Service, means that reoffending, in most cases, becomes a distant likelihood.
Old Bailey Solicitors experience with indecent image cases
I have been representing clients charged with indecent image offences for over 20 years. I have observed a change in the way such cases are perceived and handled by investigating police officers, prosecutors, probation officers and crown court judges. I have seen how a targeted process of rehabilitation can divert the first time offender back away from addictive criminal behaviour. I have worked with clients and their families seemingly destroyed by the repercussions of such behaviour but I have also seen families repair themselves and slowly rebuild their lives. Organisations such as the Lucy Faithful Foundation offer invaluable help and guidance to offenders and their families. Counselling is available through the Stop It Now campaign. I work with, and will often recommend, a number of therapists and counsellors who specialise in this form of “online sexual offending”. I have yet to encounter a case where such therapy fails to have a positive impact on my client’s behaviour, on their outlook and on their prospects in court.
I do not set out to excuse or condone this behaviour. But, with an understanding of how generally good people can sometimes do very bad things, I can guide my clients through the process, avoid a life ruining outcome and help to ensure that the cycle is broken.
- If you are being investigated in respect of indecent images or in respect of any other harmful online behaviour, contact me at [email protected] to arrange a consultation.
For more information about the law repeating to Indecent Image offences and the help we can provide, please see my articles: Defence of Indecent Images and Sexual Offences and Indecent Images: 10 Things You Should Know