Prison isn’t always the appropriate sentence, experts say

THE range and variety of offences covered under child pornography legislation means that non-custodial sentences are often “the most appropriate”, a criminologist said yesterday.

But Ian O’Donnell, of UCD’s Institute of Criminology, said more information is needed about the exact types of sentences being handed down in the courts to protect against aberrations in the system.

“Child pornography offences cover a variety of harms,” Dr O’Donnell said.

“Some no doubt merit a prison sentence, but there are a whole range of significant variables involved,” he explained.

“Every single case is different and works on a scale of harm on which it’s very difficult for judges to strike a balance and get it right.”

This scale ranges from viewing images of nude or partially clothed young people right through to the production of graphic images for the purposes of sexual gratification.

“A lot involve abuse, but it is conceivable that some could be simply of children on beaches and don’t involve abuse,” he added. “A lot of times a non-custodial sentence is appropriate and under certain circumstances the court may decide a fine is appropriate.”

However, the problem with this type of crime is that it is relatively new on the Statute books and, therefore, little information on sentencing patterns is available.

“People are revolted by these offences and want to ensure people are punished,” he explained.

“But every single case is different.”

The Sentencing Advisory Panel in England and Wales has produced an in-depth study of the type of sentences suited to particular child pornography offences, something that has not yet happened under the State’s jurisdiction.

“We don’t have sentencing guidelines,” Dr O’Donnell continued.

“What we need is good quality information about what type of sentences are being handed down.”

This would require a central system for collecting information and could prevent a public outcry every time there is a perceived discrepancy, he added.

“While some cases merit immediate imprisonment, some wouldn’t necessarily; where the material has not been traded and is at the lower end of the scale,” Dr O’Donnell added.

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