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Child Pornography

Despite years of targeted media campaigns and high-level prosecutions, the problem of child pornography persists. And the problem is not only the pornographic material itself, but the exploitation and attendant harm to children involved and elsewhere.

So what, exactly, constitutes child pornography, and what are the possible penalties for violating child porn laws?

State and Federal Child Pornography Laws

While it may be legal to possess some pornographic materials under the First Amendment's Freedom of Speech clause, the Supreme Court has not similarly protected sexually explicit depictions involving children. Therefore, states and the federal government may prohibit both the possession and distribution of child pornography.

Each state has its own definition of child pornography along with its own statutes regarding the offense and its penalties. In addition, because the transmission of pornographic material often crosses state lines or international borders, there are several federal statutes relating to the possession, transmission, and sale of child pornography.

Specifically, federal statutes prohibit the production, importation, distribution, possession, or reception, of any image of child pornography. The law goes on to define child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a person under the age of 18. Law enforcement sometimes refers to these depictions as child sexual abuse images.

State or federal authorities (or, in some cases, both) may prosecute suspected child pornographers. And the penalties are severe. Even first-time child porn offenders face lengthy prison sentences, many over 15 years.

Children and Sexting

With the proliferation of smartphones, camera technology, internet access, and social media, the creation and distribution of child pornography has only gotten easier. When the creation and distribution occurs among adults, it is easily identified as a crime. But children themselves may be just as liable under child pornography laws for taking pictures themselves and sharing them.

Most child porn statutes do not distinguish among the age of the offender. So, a young boyfriend and girlfriend sending each other sexually explicit selfies may violate the same child pornography laws as a 50-year-old who shares similar images to an internet message board.

Even though governments created and implemented child pornography laws to protect children, law enforcement has used some of those laws to prosecute children as well.


Child predators will also try and force children into sending sexually explicit pictures of themselves, often by claiming to already possess some and threatening to release them publicly or send them to parents, teachers, etc. The FBI defines sextortion as one person threatening to distribute the private and sensitive information of another if they don't provide images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.

Children, because they are impressionable and often online without adult supervision, are uniquely susceptible to sextortion threats. The FBI has also noted an increase in sextortion incidents in recent years.

Child Sex Trafficking

Because of the nature of child pornography, many of the children involved are also victims of sex trafficking. Sex trafficking of children can involve fraud, coercion, or even force, and sexual abuse and exploitation related to child pornography is widespread. Often, predators traffic children for the sole purpose of child pornography production.

There are also state and federal laws prohibiting human trafficking and slavery, and these statutes often allow for enhanced penalties when the trafficking involves minors. For instance, a person found guilty of child sex trafficking under federal law is facing 15 years to life in prison.

Sex Offender Registration

Those convicted under child pornography laws are often required to register as a sex offender. Each state has its own registry system, which may differ in terms of who must register, what information they must provide, and what information the public may see.

Failure to register is considered a separate offense from the underlying conviction, and can carry its own criminal penalties. Generally, state registries will ask for a person's name, photograph, address, and a list of offenses for which they've been convicted.

Charged With Child Pornography?

Facing any criminal charge is scary. But few have the potential to do such personal and professional damage, in terms of time behind bars and your image and reputation.

Child pornography charges are extremely serious, and require the assistance of a well-qualified and experienced criminal defense attorney. These cases can also be legally, technically, and emotionally complex -- so make sure you've got the best defense lawyer on your side.