NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED FEDERAL LAWYERS
Last Updated on: 31st December 2023, 10:25 pm
The Complex History and Uncertain Future of Federal Child Pornography Sentencing
Child pornography is unequivocally abusive and exploitative. Yet the legal response to those who possess, distribute and produce these illegal images has been complex and controversial. This article provides an in-depth look at federal sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses.
A Brief History of Federal Child Pornography Laws
Laws prohibiting the distribution and possession of child pornography are relatively new. The first federal law banning child porn was the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977. This law criminalized the commercial production and distribution of obscene materials featuring minors.Major changes came in the 1980s and 90s. The Child Protection Act of 1984 raised penalties and eliminated the obscenity requirement. The Child Sexual Abuse and Pornography Act of 1986 prohibited advertising, promoting, presenting, distributing or soliciting child pornography. The Child Protection Restoration and Penalties Enhancement Act of 1990 increased penalties again and added a mandatory minimum sentence for transporting, distributing, receiving or possessing child pornography.The advent of the internet led to additional reforms. The Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 expanded the definition of child pornography to include “virtual” images. This law was later found to be unconstitutional. The PROTECT Act of 2003 then established a “zero tolerance” policy and set 5-year mandatory minimums for trafficking and receipt of child pornography.
Sentencing Guidelines Struggle to Keep Pace
As Congress rapidly increased statutory penalties, the U.S. Sentencing Commission struggled to update sentencing guidelines for non-production child pornography offenses. The Commission sets guidelines based on empirical analysis of past sentencing practices. But statutory minimums constrained their ability to calibrate penalties.In a 2008 article, Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell argued that the child pornography guidelines were fundamentally flawed and disconnected from empirical evidence. Sentences were based predominantly on the number and type of images possessed – factors which may not accurately reflect culpability or risk of recidivism.The article ignited debate around reforming the child pornography guidelines. In 2010, the Commission noted that “no reliable statistical analysis exists to support the sentencing ranges called for” and urged Congress to give them greater flexibility. Their requests went unheeded.
Growing Disparity Between Guidelines and Imposed Sentences
Faced with extreme guideline ranges, judges began granting downward departures at increasing rates. In 2005, judges sentenced below the guideline range in 29% of child porn cases. By 2019, this figure reached 63% – more than any other offense.At the same time, average sentences trended upwards due to mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements:
- Average guideline minimum: 98 months (2005) to 271 months (2019)
- Average sentence imposed: 91 months (2005) to 103 months (2019)
This growing disparity between the guidelines and actual sentences given contributes to perceptions of unfairness and inequality. Defendants with similar criminal conduct can receive vastly different sentences depending on the judge’s assessment of individual circumstances.
The Impact of Technology and Social Science
Sentencing policy has also struggled to keep pace with technological changes. When statutory minimums were established in 2003, peer-to-peer file sharing networks were the predominant method for distributing child pornography. Such networks enabled law enforcement to easily identify suspects based on their IP addresses.The proliferation of cloud-based storage, encrypted communications, webcam video transmission, and dark web networks now make detection more difficult. This complicates sentencing, as the most dangerous offenders may avoid apprehension altogether.Evolving social science research has also influenced judicial assessments of risk and dangerousness. A 2012 Sentencing Commission report analyzed recidivism rates and patterns for child porn offenders. Key findings included:
- Only 2.6% of child porn offenders were rearrested for a new non-child porn sex offense within 6 years after release
- The single greatest predictor of recidivism was a prior criminal history with sexual abuse/exploitation
While these recidivism rates were lower than commonly perceived, judges note the study’s limitations. The average follow-up period was just 2.5 years. And many dangerous offenders likely avoided detection altogether. Still, the report contributes to a growing body of evidence that not all child porn viewers pose an equal danger to society.