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The PROTECT Act is a US federal bill, signed into law in 2003, largely directed at creating greater legal protection for children and stricter statutes regarding child pornography. These laws encompass a number of aspects of child protection, including greater ease of action for law enforcement investigating kidnappings, the institution and oversight of the national AMBER Alert program, and the removal of the statute of limitations in cases involving child abuse or abduction. The PROTECT Act also established grounds for prosecution involving “virtual child pornography,” which provided law enforcement with greater freedom to prosecute cases of child pornography possession or distribution, but has caused some controversy.
There are a number of different aspects to the PROTECT Act of 2003, which is short for “Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today.” Many of the sections were designed to increase punishments available to the legal system for those convicted of child abuse of any kind. This included the establishment of life imprisonment for anyone convicted of a second offense against a minor, stronger penalties against those convicted of kidnapping, and increased prosecutorial options against US citizens who engage in “sex tourism” in other countries.
Two of the most well-regarded aspects of the PROTECT Act were the federal establishment and guidelines to oversee the ongoing use of the AMBER Alert and Code ADAM systems. These tools assist businesses and law enforcement officers in locating and apprehending kidnappers. While some of these systems were already in place in some states and used by certain businesses, the PROTECT Act established national parameters for these programs. This act also established “Suzanne’s Law,” which altered laws that established a waiting period required to report the disappearance of anyone over the age of 18, and instead made the wait time apply only to those over the age of 21.
One of the most controversial aspects of the PROTECT Act was the establishment of “virtual child pornography” as illegal. Prior to the passage of this act, it could be difficult to prosecute someone who possessed child pornography on a computer, since the defendant could claim that it was impossible to determine the true age of the individual in the digital images. The PROTECT Act established the possession of virtual child pornography, in which the participants are clearly meant to be children regardless of actual age, as a crime. There have been attacks against this portion of the act, since it potentially can be used to prosecute someone who owns materials in which no children are depicted, but in which a person appears to be younger than he or she truly is.