A good idea gone bad: How the PA Senate sabotaged the sexual abuse prevention plan

By Randall Hayes

In September 2019, the increasingly prevalent and in-demand problem of online images of child sexual abuse (CSA) or “child pornography” rocked the Senate of Pennsylvania in a big way. The influential Chairman of the State Government Committee, Senator Mike Folmer, was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography after uploading an image of an underage female to his Tumblr account. Following his resignation, he was eventually sentenced to a 1-2 year term of confinement and 8 years of probation.

His replacement, Senator David Arnold, is a former county-level District Attorney. Given his background as a prosecutor, the scandal surrounding Senator Folmer, and the public outrage in anticipation of a lenient-sentence double-standard for a State Senator vs. an average Joe, it did not come as a surprise when Senator Arnold introduced Senate Bill 1075 in April 2020. This bill sought to increase the penalties for child pornography crimes where abuse is depicted or victims are prepubescent.

As Legislative Director for The PA Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (PARSOL), SB 1075 came to my attention as a proposal that ran counter to our mission: A PA Safe and Just For All.

What years of research on a variety of social ills has demonstrated is that tougher penalties are not effective at reducing behavior. As a Sep. 2019 feature in The New York Times details, the unfortunate reality about images of CSA is that this material has only become more popular even as criminal penalties have become more severe.

Informed by research that PARSOL has collected over years, I reached out to Senator Arnold’s office to voice my concerns. I applauded the Senator for raising the issue of the prevalence of this material online. Victims in these crimes do suffer and perpetrators should be prosecuted. I explained, however, that tougher penalties for a felony that already carries life-long consequences and years in prison is not the answer to combating CSA. Instead of reactive measures that focus on punishment and sentencing, a more effective approach is a plan of prevention advocated by experts in the field such as Dr. Elizabeth Letorneau of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

I suggested to the Senator’s office that a truly impactful approach to preventing the kind of trauma that victims of CSA and online images of abuse incur would be the formation of a task force of experts and policy-makers who have a stake in the reduction of CSA. This is precisely the first step that Dr. Letorneau advocates for.

The Senator’s Chief of Staff was very responsive. He considered PARSOL’s input and drafted language to include exactly such a task force. It was very encouraging to see that the Senator’s Office was open and willing to take advice from the experts on the best ways to implement prevention-based strategies.

Using the text that Sen. Arnold’s office drafted, the Chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lisa Baker, amended the bill and officially proposed PA’s first CSA Prevention Task Force (CSAPTF) in September 2020.

The CSAPTF was comprised of 19 individuals from a variety of backgrounds including medicine, victims’ rights, mental health, law enforcement, the public, and the Legislature. Its stated purpose was to:

  • “Develop guidance, tools and sexual abuse prevention and intervention frameworks for supporting PA Child Welfare Services and The General Assembly in efforts to better protect the children and youth entrusted to the care of PA Child Welfare Services”, and

  • “Create long-range plans and strategies for statewide community education about child sexual abuse and its prevention.”

Among other powers and duties listed, the CSAPTF would:

  • Review current best practices for primary, secondary, and tertiary CSA prevention strategies.

  • Gather information concerning CSA throughout the Commonwealth.

  • Receive reports and testimony from individuals, agencies, and organizations.

  • Develop guidelines and tools for the development of sexual abuse prevention and intervention plans by organizations serving children and youth.

  • Develop a five year plan for using community education and other strategies to increase public awareness about child sexual abuse including how to recognize signs, minimize risk and act on suspicions or disclosure of such abuse.

These were just some of the concrete steps that the proposed Task Force would have been responsible for. Although the enhanced penalties for images of CSA were kept in this expanded bill, SB 1075 had evolved into something which was clearly focused on prevention and getting to the root of the problem. It was the best plan for sexual harm-reduction that the Commonwealth may have ever seen and an encouraging start to rational sexual offense laws.

The bill moved swiftly through the Senate and the legislative process on its way to becoming law. Like any bill, it can be amended along the way to clear up ambiguities or better address the issue it tackles. Some amendments are small, like changing a $50 limit to a $25 limit. Amendments can also encompass several pages and turn a piece of legislation into something that doesn’t look anything like what it began as.

In October 2020, the bill was made available to the full Senate for examination and amendments. According to Sen. Arnold’s office, they received word from Senate Leadership that Leadership was looking at the bill and wanted to make some adjustments to the composition of the Task Force. When the bill came to the Senate for a full vote, Senator Arnold accepted the input from Leadership and introduced an amendment that fully removed the CSA Prevention Task Force.

The bill now outlines the creation of The Task Force on Child Pornography. The purpose of this Task Force is “to conduct a review to ascertain any inadequacies relating to the offense of child pornography”.

Membership of this board looks different than the CSAPTF: there is no longer a representative from the field of mental health and the presence of the police and courts are expanded. The powers of this 20-member body include

  • To recommend any improvements relating to the investigation and prosecution of child pornography

  • To recommend any necessary changes in state statues and practices, policies and procedures relating to the recognition or prosecution of child pornography

I was very much taken aback by this development. While we cannot ever expect a perfect bill, this amendment drastically changed the nature of the Task Force. What was most alarming was the complete elimination of the word “prevention” from the document. Senator Arnold’s amendment gutted the very idea of prevention of sexual harm and in its place seeks to create a body that would recommend stiffer penalties for online images of CSA.

The bill passed the PA Senate unanimously, 50-0.

The idea of enacting stiffer penalties for this crime is that it will deter people from engaging in the exploitation of children. I want to make one point very clear to the fifty Senators who voted in favor of this bill and to the 203 Members of the House who will vote on it: the evidence for the effectiveness of this approach is non-existent.

I am left questioning the intent of Senator Arnold and the PA Senate Leadership on this matter. They had a five-star plan that was backed by experts, and they completely scrapped it. Do they want to do their best to prevent children from being subjected to sexual abuse, or do they simply want to react and keep offenders in prison longer?

There is no evidence to support the idea that keeping the people who seek out this material in prison longer will reduce the number of children who fall prey to sexual molestation. I’m sorry to say it, but this problem is not going away and it cannot be “punished away”. Our current approach is not working.

On the other hand, if we focus on education and understanding why this plague has continued to grow and expand and mutate, then we can form strategies to fight it. If we implement these strategies, fewer PA children will have to wear the label of “victim” for the rest of their lives.

To our elected officials in the PA Senate and House, I ask you: Do the people of PA really want to go down the same “tough on crime” road that has left us with record amounts of CSA in our communities and online? Or do they want the best approaches that decades of research have demonstrated to be the most effective?

The choice is clear. The responsibility is yours.

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9 Thoughts to “A good idea gone bad: How the PA Senate sabotaged the sexual abuse prevention plan”

  1. Mp

    Well said. I wonder if the people voting even understand this is how the bill evolved. I hope you send this to each Senator and will send it to each Representative.

    1. Randall

      Hi, friend.

      I wondered something similar. Mr guess is that, no, the 49 other Senators just saw the Tough on Crime bill title and felt compelled to vote Yes.
      Josiah pointed out that the PA Senate GOP website hailed the great progress this bill makes towards prevention. It’s a completely inaccurate article,bc there is now no prevention element in the bill.

      As far as reaching out to Senators, we could use a hand there.
      Do you have a rapport with your PA Sen.? Would you consider making your thoughts on this issue known?

      1. Mp

        I do not live in PA. I am in Florida. The time line is written so well and not only does this explain to legislators their own process and how it went wrong, but it does to the public as well. All done in a very understandable way. I learned from it. This demonstrates perfectly how little they actually care about children frankly. As we all know getting the public and legislators to understand that, that is what they are doing, is difficult, but this shows in black and white how they had the chance for prevention and did just the opposite in way people can see it. My wish is that this would be published in as many places as possible with the headline…PA had the chance to prevent harms to children but chose not to. Or something like that. If I can write to someone on this that is helpful I would, but again I am in Florida so I am not sure where I could have any impact.

        1. Randall

          Hi again.

          Thanks for feedback.

          I submitted this article to 30 news outlets around the state as a Guest Column.

          No one picked the story up.

          1. Mp

            Amazing effort. Thank you. Sad isn’t it….how little people actually care about prevention. But we see that in all crimes. Prevention is not something people seem to care much about. They say they do, but it is just rhetoric. But we will keep at it! And I am going to print this and save it as an example. You never know when it might come in handy.

  2. Jonathan Lee

    Maybe approach if from a different angle. Safety of children, and saving money. How much does it cost the state to incarcerate each offender, the supervision after, and maintaining an ever growing registry? Do all of these senators not care about the safety of children? Do they really want to ignore all the research done? Nobody wants to be branded as an incompetent fool who does not care about children’s safety.

    As an offender, I know what it’s like. If I had a scare, I wouldve stopped. I propose 2 things that would most likely be effective WORLDWIDE.
    1) start circulating photos of a poster that describes the penalties and that law enforcement have been watching. You can name this photo as a description of csa. An offender will search for this and download it. Most of the time u cant see an image until its downloaded. It will spread like wildfire.
    2) this one is more difficult. Have a simple warning on any porn website. “Porn can be addictive. If you feel you may be addicted to porn, seek help” and give a link to an addiction website or something. I never thought about my porn viewing as an addiction. If I saw a warning or disclaimer (like they always say “please drink responsibly” for alcohol or “if you think you have a gambling addiction, call 1800gambler” for gambling. This same type of warning or link could be posted as a 1st result on a search engine whenever someone searches for porn.

    This may be far fetched, but I think the 1st one is relatively easy to do. I am really passionate about this, but as an offender still under supervision, there is little I can do. I tried reaching out to NARSOL about this multiple times, and got no response. I think prevention is key and we may have to get it done on our own to prove it works. Maybe lawmakers and policy makers think that offenders think the same way they do. That “the penalty is too high and not worth the risk. Maybe they dont realize how sick these people are. That they need help just like any other addict. Addicts and mentally ill people dont care about the consequences until they happen. Then it’s too late. The child has already been abused.

    1. Randall

      I like that first idea a lot. Seems easy to do. And addiction is very real. In other nations, I understand, there is more of an open dialogue about addiction to porn and intrusive thoughts. It’s not so shrouded in shame.
      The prevention angle is pretty hard to refute. Few people want to see other people hurt or exploited.
      When I consider that the common sense approaches are not in place, it makes me wonder who is profiting. There is money to be made in keeping prisons filled and all the post-release programs returning citizens must participate in.
      The bill is footed by the taxpayers, but companies with government contracts benefit from a steady flow of people in the criminal justice system.

      1. JONATHAN Lee

        I think of the same thing when decisions being made don’t make sense. They have to have some sort of stake in it. May be getting a cut of some kind or simply saying “I put x amount of pedofiles in prison”. How can the public be made aware of the research?

    2. Mp

      Jonathan, I too have thought the exact same thing. All these people would not be out in a dark ally looking for child pictures to purchase….it is the internet. It feeds an addition and then you end up with pictures you didn’t even go looking for or it just ends up progressing that way. We have to work towards getting society to understand and we will. It may be slow but we will. Keep up on your efforts for change, as will I.

      Randall, you are so correct as well I think.

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