Child pornography arrests have nearly doubled in Utah over the past five years, mirroring a nationwide trend that experts say has been fueled by rapid developments in technology.
New advancements have made it easier for users to find the images and for investigators to catch them, authorities said.
In 2013, Utah police arrested 133 people accused of downloading child pornography, according to department statistics. Last year, they arrested 226 people on such charges.
Child pornography crimes have steadily increased throughout the country as well. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization that works with victims of child abuse, received more than 18 million CyberTipline reports of possible cases in 2018, compared with 10 million reports in 2017, said John Shehan, a vice president at the center.
Better technology has helped agencies like Utah’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force to detect child abuse, but the internet and smart devices have also given people with a sexual interest in children easier access to child pornography, Cmdr. Jessica Farnsworth said.
Her unit is set to outpace 2018's total this year, with 104 arrests already made in the first three months.
There has been an influx of reports around the U.S. after passage of a federal law in 2012 requiring frequently used platforms like Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram and others to report child pornography as they become aware of it, Shehan said.
In Utah, police are seeing more victims ages 5 and younger, Farnsworth said. A recent case involved a newborn baby. Younger victims who don’t understand abuse make it harder to find who is producing the material, she added.
“This state is like a candy store for predators," Farnsworth said. “We have a lot of children, and we’re friendly, forgiving people here.”
Still, not everyone found guilty of possessing child pornography online is a stereotypical predator, Utah defense attorney Greg Skordas said.
Many are "bored, lonely or depressed" young men looking for stimulation online and adults who struggle with unhealthy relationships, he said.
"People don't realize, if you're sitting in the privacy of your home looking at images, that you could hurt someone," Skordas said. "But the penalties are serious, and it screws up your life."
For child victims, the emotional and physical damage can be long term, especially because the images can exist online forever, said Bethany Warr, a lawyer with the Utah Crime Victims Clinic.
“It’s a wound that never heals," she said. “The material is out there, and you don’t know who in the world has seen you, seen your abuse and pain, and enjoyed it.”