Next month, Maryland will criminalize the display of sexually-exploited children and digitally-generated images that are indistinguishable from real photos, often called “deep fakes,” when the state’s first anti-child pornography bill goes into effect on Oct. 1.

This bill, HB 1027, will also align with federal standards regarding displaying lascivious images of children. It passed after significant debate to distinguish between “bath tub photos” versus inappropriate depictions of a child. We partnered with the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office and Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault to carefully craft this balanced bill that falls within constitutional requirements. Weak state standards allow predators to evade prosecution.

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According to a report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the FBI, the creation, possession and distribution of child pornography is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, with a 2,500% increase in arrests over the last decade. In 2008, the Maryland ICAC identified 10,205 unique computers located within our state that traded pornographic images over a mere 28 month span. Backlogs have persisted and some digital forensic evidence takes months for analysis.

We shouldn’t have to even make an argument against child pornography, but it needs to be said that displaying exploitative images encourages child rape and perpetually traumatizes victims who lack the ability to provide legal consent.

“Child pornography” is a misnomer. These images are not pornography; they are evidence of sexual abuse. The National Juvenile Online Victimization Study found that 40% of cases involving possessors of child pornography revealed that those perpetrators had also raped children. Without this new law, our state’s law enforcement were not empowered to go after predators possessing digital and lascivious images, and in effect, there was a legal loophole to let child rapists get away.

But passing laws to make sure creeps don’t fall through the legal cracks is the first step in further protecting our communities from 21st century threats. Many states have not been able to keep pace with the technology predators use to contact children, who are increasingly accessible online. We still lack highly trained digital forensic investigators to follow all available leads. As recently as a few years ago, the Maryland State Police only had three full-time digital forensic investigators. Though Maryland significantly increased funding for their Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force in 2016 with Alicia’s Law, there are still thousands more leads than there are trained investigators, who frequently are recruited to higher paying and less traumatic employment.

As we look toward the 2020 session, we will continue to work with our partners across the state to ensure Maryland is keeping up with law enforcement’s technical and staffing needs, as well as the needs of our communities. This means introducing new legislation that realistically looks at teen sexting and its long-term impacts.

Next session, we will also aim to make possession of child pornography a felony for first-time offenses, as is the law in 42 other states. Not all sexually deviant offenders should be felons, but all sexual exploiters of children should be eligible to enter that category, even if it is their first time getting caught.

If we don’t empower law enforcement with additional tools to put a greater percentage of child rapists behind bars, we are empowering the predators with inaction. Together, we must end the perpetuation of a culture that tolerates trading and displaying realistic images depicting sexually exploitative images that promote child rape. The way we think and legislate about child sexual exploitation must change with new technology and social behavior. A picture can be more harmful than a thousand words, and the wounds can fester longer than those left by sticks and stones. The penalty should be commensurate to the harm society at large faces from such behavior.

Sen. Susan Lee (Susan.lee@senate.state.md.us) represents Maryland District 16 in Montgomery County and serves on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Del. Lesley Lopez (Lesley.lopez@house.state.md.us) represents District 39 in Montgomery County and serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

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