Federal Judges Testify That Criminal Sentences for Possession of Child Pornography May Be Too Long

In this article last week, The National Law Journal reported that the U.S. Sentencing Commission is holding a series of hearing in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act to get feedback on federal sentencing issues. One of these hearings was held here in Atlanta, Georgia, this February. Testimony and written statements from the hearings is available here.

Last week’s hearings took place in Chicago on September 9 and 10. The agenda is available here. Testimony on the first day came primarily from federal judges, but also included probation officers and community impact speakers. The next day, the Commission heard from United States Attorneys and federal defense attorneys, as well as receiving perspectives on alternatives to incarceration.

Many of the judges who testified mentioned the unfairly long sentences recommended by the sentencing guidelines for people convicted of possessing child pornography.

Chief Judge James Carr of the Northern District of Ohio and Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of the Eastern District of Michigan told the panel on Wednesday that sentencing for possession of child pornography, as opposed to manufacture or commercial distribution, may need to be changed. Many people convicted on the offense are not threats to the community, but rather socially awkward first-time offenders, they said.

Rosen emphasized that he doesn’t condone possession of child pornography or understand it, but focused on the unfairness of treating one person sitting in his basement receiving videos over the Internet the same as a commercial purveyor of child pornography. In some cases, a person who has watched one video gets a maximum sentence that may be higher than someone sentenced for raping a child repeatedly over many years, he said. The average sentence for possession of child pornography in his district more than doubled, from about 50 months to 109 months, between 2002 and 2007, he said.

7th Circuit Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook, who testified with a separate group of appellate judges, agreed that the child pornography possession area might be ripe for review. He said it gives him pause when he sifts through a stack of sentences that includes a bank robber getting a 10-month sentence and a person convicted of downloading child pornography receiving a 480-month sentence. “One wonders if we aren’t facing some unreasonable and unjustifiable disparities,” Easterbrook told the panel.

One commissioner said that the issue is on the Commission’s priority list for the coming year. We hope that the Commission revises the guidelines to remedy the disparities for persons convicted of possession of child pornography.