Monday, February 13, 2012

Child Porn Sentences To Be Scrutinized

A new article at the Boston Globe describes how judges are trying to craft just and effective punishments from a very flawed set of federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum laws for child pornography crimes:

Judges, including several locally, argue that changes in child pornography sentencing approved by Congress over the past decade, which add extra time for various factors such as the number of images involved, have resulted in sentences that are far too severe.
“Congress sets policy, but Congress doesn’t sentence individuals, judges do,’’ said retired US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner, who served on the bench in Boston until September 2011.
“The guidelines don’t make sense, even for one who wants to be tough on pornography. The measure of the guidelines doesn’t match the culpability of the defendant.’’
Prosecutors acknowledge that the guidelines should be reconfigured to better reflect a defendant’s culpability. But they maintain that any changes to how the guidelines are calculated should not affect the actual scale of the sentences.
They say Congress - and society - have called for the toughened penalties for the crime.
So often in sentencing debates, people assume that giving a shorter prison sentence displays less moral outrage about the crime.  It ain't necessarily so. 

No one could reasonably accuse these federal judges of thinking highly of child pornography, its producers, its peddlers, or even its purchasers.  Judges are objecting to the mandatory minimum and guideline sentences for these crimes because these punishments aren't always just.  They aren't necessarily effective at deterring crime or rehabilitating offenders.  They don't necessarily make us safer, make child pornography less available, or protect victims from further trauma.

Sentencing has many purposes.  Expressing moral outrage isn't the only one that matters.  Sometimes, it's not even the most important purpose.

This Wednesday, February 15, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is having a public hearing on federal child pornography sentencing laws.  The agenda includes perspectives from law enforcement, victims, social scientists, doctors, computer experts, and psychologists.  It looks to be a thought-provoking start to discussing how these sentencing laws work (or don't) and how we should punish a crime that raises strong emotional reactions on all sides of the issue.

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