When Kevin Ricks admitted last week that he took sexually explicit photographs and videos of boys in his care for more than three decades, U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride called the former Manassas teacher a "dangerous and serial predator who assaulted scores of young men." The Ricks case is just one of dozens of child pornography cases in local courts. The number of such cases in the D.C. region has risen dramatically in the past decade.

That's the result of both the rapid proliferation of online child pornography and a more vigorous effort to apprehend those who produce, distribute and view it.

Child pornography cases filed
Federal judicial district199920042009
D.C.2321
Maryland71432
Eastern Virginia151271
Nation4811,0902,069
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

"Before the Internet, child pornography had almost been eradicated," MacBride said.

In fiscal year 1999, just 15 child pornography cases were filed in MacBride's district, the Eastern District of Virginia, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data. But his office handled 71 cases in 2009, a 373 percent jump.

Nationwide, cases increased 330 percent -- from 481 in 1999 to 2,069 -- in 2009. And Maryland and the District also saw steep jumps -- Maryland's cases rose from seven to 32, and D.C.'s climbed from two to 21.

Since the mid-1990s, greater Internet accessibility, advances in file-sharing technology and increasing storage space on personal computers have spurred a proliferation in child pornography, said Joe diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for D.C. Between October 2008 and October 2009, more than 9 million U.S. computers were identified as having shared child pornography, an August report by the Justice Department says.

"A lot of people never would have gone into an erotic video or magazine shop and asked to see child pornography," Virginia criminal defense lawyer Mike Sprano said. "But when it's just one click away on their computer, it seems to be more tempting for people."

The increase in material has spurred law enforcement to ramp up efforts to catch sexual predators who target children.

A 2006 Justice Department initiative called Project Safe Childhood has placed prosecutors who target child-exploitation offenses in each federal judicial district. The FBI also has devoted more resources to the crime, creating task forces to work with and train local authorities and establishing an Innocent Images National Initiative to centralize evidence collection and analysis, said Kevin Gutfleish, the unit's chief.

The FBI now handles more than 2,500 new child pornography cases a year, he said. And as criminals use new file-sharing methods and social networks to view and distribute child porn, undercover law enforcement uses those same tools to hunt down predators.

Such undercover operations have made the FBI increasingly proactive in tracking suspects in child porn cases, Gutfleish said.

Like the Ricks case, most child pornography prosecutions end in a plea agreement.

"The material speaks for itself," diGenova said. "There is no innocent explanation for its existence."

People used to assume that interest in viewing sexual images of children was a rare desire, said Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University.

"What the Internet is teaching us is that it's a far more prevalent behavior than we thought," he said.

ebabay@washingtonexaminer.com