Life on the Internet, to steal a famous phrase, is like a box of chocolates you never know what you're going to get. The person in a chat room describing herself as you would a playboy playmate is just as likely, if not more so, to be a 45-year-old man living in his mother's basement.
That is just an accepted risk for those dealing in Cyberspace until you wade into the murky waters of online predators.
The Cincinnati Inquirer did an analysis of 46 of about 140 Internet sex-sting busts in five southwest Ohio counties from 2003 to 2006. Twenty offenders ended up serving less than three months in jail, and 20 percent served no jail-time at all.
Part of the reason is that these stings, in which police officers pose as children to nab online predators, produce victimless crimes. Therefore, with no child actually being molested, judges are placed in the extremely difficult position of determining whether the perpetrator is actually a threat, or simply acting on fantasy or curiosity, with no intent to ever take it further.
"Would they have done something, or are they just kind of voyeurs on the Internet? We don't have a crystal ball that tells us the right answer," said Warren County Common Pleas Judge James Flannery. It is a trend legal experts say is taking place across the country.
Those caught in Internet stings usually face felony charges of importuning and attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. Conviction for importuning means up to a year in prison. For both charges, the maximum sentence is 21/2 years. But prison time is not mandatory.
While at first glance this situation is reprehensible, judges are actually doing the right thing within the constraints of what prosecutors can prove. Most of those individuals who are arrested and you can call them sick or twisted if you wish for their fantasies have not actually been caught molesting a child.
Perhaps prison time should be mandatory for those who take the extra step and arrange meetings with cops posing as children, but even then it is impossible to tell what might have taken place.
Lawmakers must resist the urge to legislate harsher mandatory penalties. As time moves forward, the law and the proper punishments for these crimes will be refined through the proper, though often painful, method of legal trial and error.