Page 2 of 3
Nationally, ICAC features 61 task forces spread across the country. Comprised of more than 2,000 federal, state and municipal agencies, it also includes outposts in Australia and Britain. And Congress, which created ICAC in 1998, is increasingly paying to support the program. The federal government awarded ICAC a $25 million base budget this year, plus $50 million in stimulus funding. In 1998, the ICAC budget totaled $2.4 million.
According to the DOJ, the investment is paying off. Federal attorneys across the country brought more than 2,200 computer-based child exploitation cases in 2008, compared to just 313 child exploitation cases in 1994.
As funding and personnel increase, Montana prosecutors and police say they're starting to make headway. But they caution the problem isn't going away anytime soon.
"The greatest increases are probably just around the corner," says former U.S. Attorney Mercer. "I don't think we have seen the high water mark."
Eric Fevold knows computers. When U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents tracked down the Missoula resident in June 2007, a forensic analysis of his homemade computer found 40,000 child pornography files, some of them containing sexual images of infants.
Fevold lived in the basement of his parents' Rattlesnake residence and worked for BobWards.com. He was filling the hummingbird feeder at the family home when agents first showed up to talk with him.
ICE began investigating a criminal organization operating approximately 18 commercial pornography websites in April 2006. The investigation, dubbed "Operation Flicker," identified nearly 5,000 people in the United States who had paid to access child porn through the organization. Fevold was one of them. According to court records, Fevold admitted charging $79.95 to his credit card for a 30-day membership to the sites.
In a second interview with law enforcement, which took place in an agent's vehicle outside Fevold's workplace, Fevold admitted to looking at child pornography. He says that he knew the images on his computer were illegal, but he didn't realize the extent of the legal ramifications.
"I expected some kind of warning," says Fevold, now 50, in a phone interview with the Independent from a federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas. "[I expected] something telling me not to do that."
Fevold's family describes him as a regular guy. In letters to the court, they depict a Boy Scout who enjoyed math, geology and bird watching.
"I still feel like I'm a normal person," he says, "that strayed from the right path."
For about five years prior to his arrest, Fevold felt socially isolated and increasingly sought out illegal pornography. "It sort of built up, snowballed," he says. His family told the court that they had never seen Fevold be sexually inappropriate or violent, although he had been arrested for driving under the influence and disorderly conduct prior to his pornography arrest.
Regardless of criminal history, federal sentencing dictates a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for receiving child pornography. The mandatory minimum can also be coupled with what are called "enhancements," which increase punishment based on a variety of factors, including portrayals of sadomasochism, a large collection or images of pre-pubescent children.
In child pornography cases, enhancements come into play when an offender uses a computer to download images instead of obtaining hard copies via snail mail or in person. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a computer enhancement adds, on average, about a year and a half onto pornography-related prison sentences.
In November 2008, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy found Fevold guilty on one count of receiving pornography, sending him to prison for seven years. Molloy issued a shorter sentence than federal sentencing guidelines recommended.
Nonetheless, Fevold's family questioned the value of sending him to prison rather than providing community-based psychological treatment. Eric's brother, Steve Fevold, wrote in a letter to the court: "I have a hard time seeing how a severe sentence would be of any benefit to helping Eric in being a productive person in society. Sending him away for even five years would likely harden him as a convicted criminal by giving him similar treatment as a person who actively distributed child pornography."
John Rhodes, Fevold's court-appointed attorney, says his client is not unusual among people convicted of child pornography offenses.
"The typical child pornography client has no record, does not have substance abuse problems and is, relatively speaking, well educated," says Rhodes, who has served as an assistant federal defender in Montana for 12 years.
Rhodes believes federally mandated minimum sentences are unjust, and testified against them before Congress in 2005. Specifically, Rhodes argued to eliminate the Feeney Amendment, which, as part of the PROTECT Act in 2003, implemented minimum sentencing mandates for pornography-related offenses. The Feeney Amendment created the five-year minimum sentence for downloading illegal pornography.
Rhodes, who has three small children, acknowledges that friends sometimes ask him to justify defending people who victimize kids. But he says his clients are "human being with strengths and flaws like all of us" and, when removed from reality, they lose sight of the fact that their actions cause harm.
"There's the cyber reality that people think is different from everyday reality," he says. "There's not an immediate perception that someone is being harmed."
According to 2006 DOJ statistics, 79.9 percent of federal child pornography defendants had no prior felony conviction.
"Many if not most of my clients could be more effectively rehabilitated in the community rather than incarcerating them for five years or more," argues Rhodes.
Congress, however, has steadily pushed federal sentencing up. Between 1996 and 2006, pornography sentences quadrupled, jumping from 15 months on average to 63, according to the DOJ.
The push doesn't make sense to Rhodes. Mandatory minimums remove judicial discretion and, in turn, don't take into account individual circumstances.
"One sentence does not always fit every offender and that's the problem with mandatory minimums," he says. "They're frequently unjust."
In particular, he believes the computer enhancement is antiquated. He's never had a case that didn't involve a computer. During Fevold's sentencing, Judge Molloy also deliberated aloud the merits of the computer enhancement guideline.