MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

The Number of Men in Federal Prison for Viewing or Sharing Child Pornography Has Nearly Septupled Since 2004

Most are serving mandatory minimums, usually for crimes that did not involve assault or sexual abuse.

The number of child pornography offenders in federal prison has nearly septupled since 2004, and most are serving mandatory sentences of five years or more, generally for crimes that did not involve assault or sexual abuse. In fiscal year 2016, for example, 1,565 people were sentenced for possessing, receiving, or distributing child pornography, but only 80 (5 percent) were also convicted of production or another form of sexual abuse. The average sentence was more than eight years.

USSCUSSCThose numbers come from a report published today by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), which says 8,508 federal prisoners were serving time for child pornography offenses in FY 2016, up from 1,259 in FY 2004. The report shows that federal courts continue to impose lengthy prison sentences on people whose offenses may have consisted of nothing more than looking at or sharing pictures of other people's crimes. Judges often have no choice, since Congress has established a five-year mandatory minimum for receiving or distributing child pornography, which rises to 15 years for defendants who have previously been convicted of specified sexual offenses. In FY 2016, 58 percent of child pornography offenders received mandatory minimums.

When judges have discretion, they typically use it to impose sentences shorter than those recommended by federal guidelines. "In fiscal year 2016," the USSC reports, "only 26.8 percent of all child pornography offenders were sentenced within the guideline range, compared to 46.6 percent of offenders overall and 41.4 percent of offenders convicted of an offense carrying any mandatory minimum penalty." That pattern, which is consistent with data for the last decade or so, indicates that federal judges view the current sentencing scheme as excessively harsh, a complaint some of them have publicly voiced. A 2010 USSC survey found that that 71 percent of federal judges thought the mandatory minimums for child porngraphy offenses were too long, while 70 percent said the same thing about guideline sentences.

USSCUSSCSome aspects of these sentences defy rationale explanation. "Although Commission analysis has demonstrated that there is little meaningful distinction between the conduct involved in receipt and possession offenses," the USSC notes, "the average sentence for offenders convicted of a receipt offense, which carries a five-year mandatory minimum penalty, is substantially longer than the average sentence for offenders convicted of a possession offense, which carries no mandatory minimum penalty." In FY 2016, the average sentence for people convicted of receiving child pornography (excluding those convicted of prior sex offenses) was 85 months, more than 50 percent longer than the 55-month average for people convicted of possessing child pornography. The difference lies not in what the defendant did but in how a prosecutor decides to charge him.

That is by no means the only weird result dictated by current sentencing rules. In a 2009 critique of the sentencing guidelines, Troy Stabenow, then an assistant federal public defender in Missouri, showed how a defendant with no prior criminal record and no history of abusing children would qualify for a sentence of 15 to 20 years based on a small collection of child pornography and one photo swap, while a 50-year-old man who encountered a 13-year-old girl online and lured her into a sexual relationship would get no more than four years. The comparison, Stabenow said, "demonstrates the absurdity of the system."

In FY 2016, the average sentence received by federal child pornography offenders, 95 percent of whom were not convicted of contact crimes, was 101 months, which is nearly as long as the average for robbery. The maximum sentence for receiving child pornography, 20 years, is almost as long as the maximum sentence for arson. Violations of 18 USC 1466A, which covers "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children," are subject to the same penalties, even when production of the images did not involve any actual children. That's right: If one person hands another a drawing of children engaged in sexual activity, both can get five to 20 years.

The federal government is restrained compared to some states. Arizona and Florida, for example, have been know to impose life sentences on people caught with child pornography. Something has gone terribly wrong when courts treat looking at images of a crime more severely than committing that crime.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It all leads to trafficking.

  • 1980-f||

    What does? And how does it do that? Please provide a bit more evidence.

  • Fancylad||

    Are we still allowed to hate paedophilia, or has it now been incorporated into the rainbow of tolerance too?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I think we should work to remove the stigma around it.

  • John||

    Only if it is done by a gay or a Muslim.

  • John||

    Only when it is done by evil straight white men. Catch an evil straight white male looking at dirty pictures and you send him to prison forever. If the sacred gays take a ten year old boy and dress him up as a woman and have him do a poll dance in front of a bunch of gay men, that is totally okay. A Muslim having a child bride or raping an infidel girl is totally okay too. That is just cultural diversity.

    This is how pedophilia is going to become accepted. It will be accepted via the logic of intersectionality. That means it will be okay only when practiced by gays and Muslims and others high enough on the intersectionaility food chain to get away with it.

  • ||

    If the sacred gays take a ten year old boy and dress him up as a woman and have him do a poll dance in front of a bunch of gay men, that is totally okay.

    Again, "It was a good rape."

  • Benitacanova||

    So patently unfair to the mormons.

  • Zeb||

    I'd wager that a number of those being punished are evil gay white men.

  • John||

    I am sure. But, that is going to end. You watch.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Yeah I don't think many suburban housewives are going to want a child molester friend the way they want a gay male friend. I could be wrong but I think that may just be a bridge too far for them.

  • Brian||

    We'll just have to wait and see what happens to Kevin Spacey.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Exactly John.

    Following the rules in the USA is to be forced on every American but illegal immigrants dont have to.

    Every America must do what government says but politicians and bureaucrats largely get a pass.

  • 1980-f||

    "have him do a poll dance"
    What kind of poll would that be? One for local elections, the president, or what?

  • Careless||

    I saw someone on Twitter outraged that she had been called "a pedophobe" the other day.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Afraid of children? How dare she!

  • A Lady of Reason||

    Not as severe as abusing a child physically, but children are still exploited to make these pictures...
    https://aladyofreason.wordpress.com/

  • John||

    Sure they are. But someone having the picture doesn't make that exploitation any different than it is. What makes having the picture wrong such that it should be a crime? Nothing except that it exhibits bad thinking as far as I can see. Possession laws are thought crimes.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    The idea is to end production by eliminating the demand. Because that worked so well with alcohol and drugs...

  • Zeb||

    You can have pictures of people being murdered, robbed, beaten, etc. What is the fundamental difference here that justifies the massive difference in treatment of images of different kinds of crimes being committed.

  • Juice||

    Actually, I don't think possession of video or images of these crimes is itself illegal in any way.

  • 1980-f||

    Many things we do every day involve the exploitation of vulnerable people, often including children. Tobacco farming; cocaine production; mobile phones... yet we regard ourselves as superior to anyone looking at pictures.

  • No Longer Amused||

    I remember reading (decades ago) that the largest purveyor of child porn was the USPS, who used it for various sting operations that I believe was finally stopped due to being entrapment. Most people actually had no idea what they were buying, only that it was "banned."

    Twenty years ago, when online porn was still mostly newsgroups full of binary files, you actually had to download a file to find out what it was.

    Also, one man was in the midst of being successfully prosecuted for having child porn, when the actress in question just happened to be in country and showed up as a witness to the trial with her passport. While the medical professional they used as an expert witness claimed that the woman in question, Lupe Fuentes, was obviously 12 years old or so, she was in fact over a decade older.

  • Juice||

    Twenty years ago, when online porn was still mostly newsgroups full of binary files

    I know the 21st century is all a blur, but 20 years ago was 1999, so you might want to go back a bit farther than that.

  • Zeb||

    OK, more like 23 years ago.

  • Juice||

    Or 30. Whatever.

  • Benitacanova||

    In Europe the country with the highest number of pedos is Belgium. Think about it. Belgians!

    MISERABLE FAT BELGIAN BASTARDS

    http://youtu.be/SvAdQOs3qUc


    [removed][removed]

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has the largest amount of Child Porn in the World.

    This child pornography clearinghouse is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)

    There is also a clear disconnect between "art" or home videos that have under 18 kids in them and the law.

    There are just no child porn exception in the 1st Amendment protections.

  • Robert||

    Why don't we get people who like child porn jobs w that National Center? Then everybody's happy!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Hiring "hackers" to work for the CIA is cool.

    Same concept for sex offenders at that place...not so much.

  • Ymmarta||

    The 1A doesn't make an exception for exposing your genitals to children, either.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The US constitution is silent as to nudity. No state constitution bans nudity.

    It would seem to be a natural right to be nudesincewe are born that way,

    We Americans have tended to be quite puritanical as to nudity. Society does implement some rules to make society tolerable. People not walking on sidewalks nude might be one of those societal norms.

    In Some of Europe, being 100% nude on a beach even around children is okay. Not that Europe is a bastion of freedom but French and Italians are far more free about nudity on beaches than America.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Of course this is "for the children" so no punishment can possibly be harsh enough, even if the crime involves nothing more than possessing or "receiving" a cartoon?

    Good luck finding a politician to take that on, by the way.

  • Dillinger||

    possession laws are wrong and creepy is still creepy.

  • Benitacanova||

    Maybe Jacob doth protest too much.

    I say pluck out their eyes. Then they can only jerk off to kids' audio books.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Do those convicted of child sex offences ever make it out of prison alive? I figured most were "accidentally" put in gen pop and then granted early release via the morgue.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    More and more sex offenders in prison means less and less prison majorities of non-sex offenders to attack sex offenders.

    By sending more sex offenders to prison, you actually make it safer for sex offenders based soley on their offense stigma.

    More sex offenders might mean more prison rape because sex offenders are horn-dogs and will fuck anything.

  • 1980-f||

    "sex offenders are horn-dogs and will fuck anything"

    What gives you that idea? You have some strange notions. There's not the slightest evidence that sex offenders are any different than most people apart from the fact of their sexual orientation. Perhaps you think the same about gay people, or about sexually-experienced women.

  • Bobster0||

    What if thousands of pictures showing cartoon child molestation are spread around the ground at schools and other public places? The the kid in the cartoon screaming "I'm eight years old!" while a full grown monster rapes him/her so there can be no doubt it's child porn.

    Anyone picking up such a picture will be charged and sent to jail for years. Sounds fair to me. The perverts!

  • perlchpr||

    Sounds like someone needs to start emailing lots of child porn to members of Congress, and making sure the FBI knows they have it.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online