People who stalk other internet users with a few clicks of a computer keyboard will face greater chances of hearing the clicks of handcuffs and prison doors, if U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham gets his way.

With a nod to a federal report released months ago, Abraham said on April 20 that he plans to introduce legislation meant to protect both children and adults who feel threatened by “cyberstalkers.”

Abraham’s “Just Punishment for Cyberstalkers Act of 2000” also would press the U.S. Sentencing Commission—the arbiter of federal sentencing guidelines—to set tougher punishments for online solicitors of sex with young people.

His suggestion: base sentences according to the targeted child’s age—or that which the suspect perceived it to be.

“These pedophiles, in my judgment, should be treated much more harshly,” the Auburn Hills, Mich., Republican said in highlighting the measure. “We want to make the price they pay as great as we can make it.”

A similar House version was introduced last year by Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y.

Oakland County, Mich., authorities lauded Abraham’s approach in an age when pedophiles often anonymously make advances to children through online chat rooms, then make contact with the children.

“The internet has become the playground of the new millennium for pedophiles and stalkers,” Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.

To Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca, long gone are “the old days, when pedophiles would [have to] go to schoolyards to prey.”

The continuing growth of the internet presents a “very insidious problem” of predators “hiding behind computers in the comforts of their own home,” Gorcyca said.

To demonstrate, Detective Sgt. Joe Duke—a member of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department’s cybercrime unit—posed in an online chatroom as “jenna_13,” with the 13 suggesting the girl’s age. Within seconds, messagers responded from as far as Australia and Jacksonville, Fla., in some cases sending vulgar solicitations or graphics.

In Michigan last December, Gov. John Engler signed into law a measure that applies stalking penalties to cyberspace. Under it, those who stalk online can face up to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

Michigan’s law can be applied to internet communications that begin or end in the state. And it allows investigators statewide to pursue criminal charges against internet stalkers just as they do against someone who harasses a victim repeatedly via phone, mail, or in person.

Michigan adopted person-to-person anti-stalking laws in 1994.

The move by Michigan and Abraham follows last August’s U.S. Justice Department report that recommended federal and state laws be strengthened to help curb the perceived spread of online stalking.

The report, requested by Vice President Al Gore, urged states to review their laws to ensure they bar and provide “appropriate” punishment for stalking through the internet and other means of electronic communication, including pagers.

Though President Clinton in 1998 signed into law a measure meant to protect children against online stalking, the report—and now Abraham—say the law should be broadened to outlaw interstate communication made with the intent to threaten or harass another person.

Such new laws should include stiffer penalties when victims are minors, the report said. And federal law should make it easier for law enforcement to track down cyberstalkers.

Michigan’s law was praised by those who say changing technology has let criminals stay ahead of the law. Civil libertarians, who often oppose tougher internet regulation, have said they back the push if it doesn’t erode speech rights.

Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich.

http://www.senate.gov/~abraham

U.S. Justice Department’s 1999 report on cyberstalking

http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/cybercrime/cyberstalking.htm