The girls on Kevin Harty’s computer were mostly aged between eight years old, and sixteen years old. Some were nine. Some ten. Some eleven. One of the girls on his computer was a baby, aged between one and two.
Thankfully, the court was spared the details of exactly what was being done to the children in the images on Harty’s computer. We do know, though, that there were one thousand, two hundred, and ninety-nine such images. We also know that they involved the sexual abuse of the children, otherwise, of course, possessing them would not have been criminal.
We know, too, what the court’s verdict was: A suspended sentence.
Judge Elma Sheahan (who, full disclosure, this writer knew in passing before she became a Judge) said that her reasons were that Harty was remorseful, and was engaging in therapy to address his urges to look at images of children being abused. He will remain free of prison, she said, so long as he continues to attend this therapy, and continue the path to rehabilitation.
Unspoken, you would suspect, was another reason for suspending the sentence: People who are in prison for anything to do with the sexual abuse of children tend to get somewhat of a harder time than the average inmate, who tend to feel themselves a cut above the child abusers. But the responsibility to protect inmates in our prisons lies with the Prison Service: If they can’t guarantee a prisoner’s safety, then that’s a problem the Government should address.
On the merits, Judge Sheahan got this one badly wrong.
There is no reason, after all, to suspect that Harty could not have continued his rehabilitation in prison. And there is an obvious case that he should be in prison.
The sexual abuse of a baby, for example, is about the worst crime we can imagine, in modern society, short of murder. When Harty downloaded those images, he did not directly rape any children, but he created a demand for images of children being raped. If people like Harty weren’t willing to buy these images, the incentive to create them would be significantly reduced. If he paid as much as a cent for these images, then it’s likely that he contributed to the abuse of other children, in the future, and incentivised it.
The criminal justice system is not simply about rehabilitation. It has two other functions – deterrence, and punishment.
Has Mr. Harty been punished? That’s hard to say. On the one hand, when you google “Kevin Harty” from here on out, you’re going to find stories about how he’s a convicted viewer of child abuse images. On the other hand, it’s a big world, there are a lot of people called Kevin Harty, and if he wants to change his name, he’s allowed to do that. If the punishment is the stigma attached to his crime, that can be escaped.
Taking away his liberty, on the other hand, would have been a punishment he could not escape. There are plenty of people in Irish prisons for lesser crimes. There are people in prison, for example, who killed people in car accidents by driving dangerously. That’s a terrible crime, and it deserves prison, certainly. But it’s also, usually, an accidental crime. Nobody sets out to kill another person, when they sit in their car. It’s a crime of recklessness, not pre-meditation. Harty, by contrast, knew exactly what he was doing when he downloaded these images. He knew exactly what he was looking at. It’s hard to find a good argument, on the merits and on the morals, for why he should be free and at liberty while somebody who was reading a text message when they crashed into somebody should be in prison.
And what about deterrence? Judge Sheahan hasn’t just acted leniently in this case – she’s created and entrenched a precedent for how these cases are dealt with. Enter rehabilitation, express sorrow, promise to change, and you should walk. It’s a precedent that can be cited in appeals by other, less lucky, child porn viewers.
And it’s also a precedent, crucially, for the Gardai. Having spent considerable resources investigating someone like Harty, for a computer crime like this…. he walked. Instead of putting the bad guy behind bars, in this instance, the Gardai’s efforts resulted in putting the bad guy in therapy. Is it really a productive use of their time, then, to pursue these kinds of crime in the future, especially in a political environment where getting convictions and incarcerations are what counts?
Undue leniency is a consistent problem, when it comes to sexual crimes in Ireland. Judge Sheahan may have acted in good faith, and with the best of intentions. But she made a mess of this one, didn’t she?