Is possessing child pornography treated as a minor offence?

18 June 2013

The Daily Mail's headline was uncompromising in its outrage:

"Two in three child porn perverts spared jail as 1,000 paedophiles caught with obscene material are given community or suspended sentences".

The Ministry of Justice does indeed provide statistics on sentencing for the offence of "possession of obscene material". As the pie chart belows, the majority of those sentenced (1,171 offenders) received either a suspended sentence or a community order - in other words, they weren't sent immediately to prison.

(Volume 5 2012, spreadsheet 5.1, rows 432-6)

But how do we know that this "obscene material" (defined as that which has a tendency "to deprave and corrupt persons") involves images of children? The Daily Mail is adamant that "the vast majority [of offences] would have been for possession of child pornography".

The possession and distribution of adult pornography is, generally speaking, not illegal (although, as of 2009, it's an offence to possess extreme pornographic images). But the MoJ data isn't specific so we don't know in what proportion of cases the "obscene material" involved children rather than adults. We'll be submitting a Freedom of Information request to the MoJ and the Crown Prosecution Service in case either one of them holds this information.

In the meantime, we do have a separate set of data that tells us how many people have been imprisoned for possessing or distributing 'indecent' images of children. The graph below shows the decrease in the percentage of offenders sentenced to immediate custody (in place of a community sentence, a suspended sentence or a fine). 

Between 2005 and 2010, there is a clear downward trend in the percentage of offenders sentenced to custody. However, this isn't necessarily proof that the courts are serving up 'soft' justice. For instance, we don't know whether more people are being sentenced for offences that might be described as minor and are as a result less likely to be sent to prison.

Also, this data comes with caveats. Firstly, it's derived from a Freedom of Information request and is not part of an official statistical release. And, particularly in the case of those sentenced for possessing indecent images of children, we're talking about a relatively small number of people (around 200 each year), which means that a slight increase or decrease can show up in the graph as quite a large percentage change.

As for the leniency of sentences, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides more detail on what informs a sentencing decision in the case of an offender possessing 'indecent' photographs of children.

The severity of the sentence will depend variously on the age of the child, whether the offender was in any way responsible for the abuse depicted, and the nature of the images - graded levels one to five - which might depict anything from 'erotic posing' to penetrative sexual activity.

The Daily Mail is correct when it claims that last year more than 1,000 of those sentenced for the possession of "obscene material" escaped prison. However, we don't yet know exactly how many of these offenders had been in possession of child pornography.

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