By Michael J. Pelgro
Possession of child pornography now makes up an increasing proportion of the crimes charged in federal district courts. Hardly a week goes by without a fresh news story concerning a person charged in federal court because his computer contained child pornography images. As for all federal crimes, sentencing in child pornography cases is influenced by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”). The Guidelines were promulgated in November 1987 by the United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”), a bipartisan agency established by Congress in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The Commission’s mandate was to construct, and revise annually, mandatory Guidelines encompassing all federal crimes, with a goal of ensuring certainty and fairness, and avoiding unwarranted disparities, in federal criminal sentencing decisions. In 2005, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker, which rendered the Guidelines advisory. United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 261-63 (2005). No longer mandatory, but backed by the Commission’s study and expertise, the Guidelines continue to play a “central role” and provide “gravitational pull” in federal sentencing. The primary guideline for child pornography cases, §2G2.2, however, has been criticized as “an eccentric Guideline of highly unusual provenance which, unless carefully applied, can easily generate unreasonable results.” United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174, 188 (2d Cir. 2010). This guideline resulted from Congressional dictates, rather than the Commission’s traditional “empirical approach,” an unusual history that has generated widespread judicial and commentator disagreement with the sentencing ranges recommended by this guideline.
The controversy is reminiscent of the longstanding criticism of the 100:1 ratio that Congress used in determining minimum mandatory penalties in cocaine cases. In the mid-1980s, fueled by the perception that crack cocaine was more addictive and more dangerous than powder cocaine, Congress directed that five-year and ten-year minimum mandatory prison sentences apply to quantities of crack cocaine 100 times less than powder cocaine. The Commission followed the same proportionality in fashioning the crack cocaine guidelines, thus mandating lengthy federal prison sentences in cases involving small amounts of crack cocaine. Judicial and commentator backlash against this 100:1 ratio caused the Commission to reassess the fairness of the penalties and the assumptions on which they were based, which in turn led Congress to abandon the 100:1 ratio in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, thus allowing the Commission to lower the crack cocaine guidelines.
Now, in a similar groundswell, an increasing number of federal judges are speaking out against the child pornography guideline and, in this post-Booker sentencing era, are refusing to follow its recommended imprisonment ranges. This backlash is now causing the Commission to study the guideline and the assumptions on which it is based. These developments suggest that Congressional action may be forthcoming.
II. The History of the Child Pornography Sentencing Guideline
While the Supreme Court’s landmark Booker decision rendered the Guidelines advisory, the Court has made clear that they remain “the starting point and the initial benchmark” in the federal sentencing process and that they “deserve some weight in the sentencing calculus, as they are ‘the product of careful study based on extensive empirical evidence derived from the review of thousands of individual sentencing decisions.’” Much time and attention is still devoted in federal court to the proper calibration of the Guideline imprisonment ranges precisely because federal judges continue to give weight to them and often defer to the Commission’s historical expertise in fashioning recommended ranges of imprisonment.
The Commission’s usual empirical approach was not followed, however, in the development of the child pornography guidelines, which were substantively revised to increase penalties nine times in the 22 years following their promulgation in 1987. The Commission was not allowed to play its traditional institutional role in fashioning recommended imprisonment ranges for such offenses. Rather, Congress took over the process, “prompting the Commission to respond to multiple public laws that created new child pornography offenses, increased criminal penalties, directly (and uniquely) amended the child pornography guidelines, and required the Commission to consider offender and offense characteristics for the child pornography guidelines.” Id. at 54. Courts and commentators have remarked on Congress’s unique exertion of its authority and influence in the development of the child pornography guidelines. As one commentator put it, the child pornography guidelines were not “the product of an empirically demonstrated need for consistently tougher sentencing” but rather were “largely the consequence of numerous morality earmarks, slipped into larger bills over the last fifteen years, often without notice, debate, or study of any kind.” The result is a guideline — §2G2.2 — that recommends years of imprisonment for all child pornography defendants, no matter their “history and characteristics” or the “nature and circumstances of the offense.” 18 U.S.C. §3553(a)(1).
A. The Amendments
When the Guidelines were promulgated in 1987, possession of child pornography was not a federal crime. Section 2G2.2 encompassed the crimes of transport, distribution, and receipt of child pornography; it set the Base Offense Level (“BOL”) at 13. The BOL determines the proposed length of a sentence before consideration of any aggravating or mitigating factors. In November 1990, Congress passed a statute which criminalized possession and directed the Commission to increase penalties for sexual crimes against children. Thus began a years-long process involving Commission study and proposals to achieve proportionality in punishment and Congressional rejection of the proposals in favor of increased punishment across the board.
In 1991, for example, the Commission proposed setting a lower BOL (10) for the similar crimes of receipt and possession of child pornography. In response, Congress insisted that the crimes of receipt, transportation, and distribution remain in the same guideline and that the BOL for those crimes be increased. It also directed the Commission to create a separate guideline for possession (§2G2.4) with a higher BOL (13) than that recommended by the Commission and with an enhancement for possession of 10 or more items.
A similar back-and-forth took place in 1995, when the House of Representatives passed a proposal to increase the BOL to 15 and to add a use-of-computer enhancement for possession offenses. The amendment, passed over the Commission’s objection, did both. This enhancement increases the imprisonment range in virtually every child pornography case now prosecuted in federal court.
In 2003, Congress passed the PROTECT Act, directly amending the Guidelines for the first time. Insertion of the Feeney amendment into the popular Amber Alert bill dramatically changed the child pornography guidelines by creating 5-year minimum mandatory sentences for trafficking and receipt, raising the statutory maximum for possession from 5 to 10 years, and directly amending the possession guideline (§2G2.4) to add an escalating enhancement based on the number of images. Despite objection by the Commission and others, including a former United States Attorney, the PROTECT Act and the Feeney amendment (which was debated in Congress for just 20 minutes), became law in April 2003.
To remedy the ensuing confusion and harmonize sentences for receipt and possession offenses, the Commission proposed in 2004 consolidating the possession guideline (§2G2.4) with the transport, distribution, and receipt guideline (§2G2.2). These amendments took effect in November 2004. Now a single guideline — §2G2.2 — encompasses possession, receipt, and trafficking offenses.
III. Judicial Reaction To The Child Pornography Guidelines
Courts have recognized that the Congressionally-manipulated guideline has resulted in unusually severe sentences in many child pornography cases. With the flexibility allowed by Booker, courts are giving little or no deference to the child pornography guidelines, concluding that they do not reflect the Commission’s traditional empirical approach and do not further the sentencing objectives embodied in 18 U.S.C. §3553(a). Federal judges are giving little or no deference to the child pornography guidelines, relying for support on judicial treatment of the crack cocaine guidelines.
In Kimbrough v. United States, a 2007 crack cocaine case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Booker and held that a sentencing court has the discretionary authority to disagree with the policy embodied in a guideline if it determines that the guideline’s recommended imprisonment range is “greater than necessary to serve the objectives of sentencing.” Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 91 (2007)(quoting 18 U.S.C. §3553(a)). The Court observed that the Commission’s adoption of the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing ratio in the drug guideline was based not on empirical research, but on the minimum mandatory sentences dictated by Congress. Therefore, the Court ruled, a sentencing court may impose a sentence below the guidelines. Similarly, in Spears v. United States, the Court explained in 2009 that a court may sentence below the crack-cocaine guidelines based solely on a policy disagreement with the guidelines even where a defendant presents no special mitigating circumstances warranting a below-guideline sentence. Spears v. United States, 555 U.S. 261, 263-64 (2009)(per curiam).
Kimbrough and Spears paved the way for sentencing courts to depart from the guidelines in all cases, providing flexibility to sentence on a more individualized basis. Courts have, as a result, begun to reject or give little deference to §2G2.2. In United States v. Dorvee, relying on the unique history of Congressional involvement in amending the child pornography guidelines, the Second Circuit affirmed a below-guideline child pornography sentence, observing that §2G2.2 “is fundamentally different from most and that, unless applied with great care, can lead to unreasonable sentences that are inconsistent with what §3553 requires.” Dorvee, 616 F.3d at 184. In United States v. Grober, the Third Circuit affirmed on Kimbrough grounds a variant child pornography sentence based on the view that §2G2.2 “leads to a sentence that is too severe in a downloading case.” United States v. Grober, 624 F.3d 592, 596 (3rd Cir. 2010)(quoting United States v. Grober, 595 F.Supp.2d 382, 394 (D. N.J. 2008)). After reviewing §2G2.2’s history, the Court concluded that “the Commission probably did the best it could under difficult circumstances but to say that the final product is the result of Commission data, study, and experience simply ignores the facts.” Grober, 624 F.3d at 608 (quoting United States v. Diaz, 720 F.Supp.2d 1039, 1045 (E.D. Wis. 2010)). While the First Circuit has yet to issue a similar type of opinion, it has observed that Kimbrough applies to the child pornography guidelines, which are “harsher than necessary.” United States v. Stone, 575 F.3d 83, 89-94 (1st Cir. 2009).
Many district courts across the country have similarly opined, expressing variations on the view that §2G2.2 is “seriously flawed and accordingly entitled to little respect,” with federal judges declaring that §2G2.2 “is just as flawed as the crack guideline” or that a sentencing judge is “entitled to reject it entirely.” Federal district judges in Massachusetts have not yet issued similar written opinions but have imposed below-guideline sentences in child pornography cases, expressing their disagreement with the severity of §2G2.2. The latest Commission statistics on federal sentencing decisions reflect the reality that federal judges across the country are increasingly using their Kimbrough authority to impose below-guideline sentences in child pornography cases. 2011 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics (available at www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2011/SBTOC11.htm ) (last checked May 25, 2012).
Like the crack cocaine guidelines, the child pornography guidelines have generated negative reaction based on the unique level of Congressional involvement in their development. In response, after producing a comprehensive report documenting the history of these guidelines, the Commission has made the study of this serious crime, and the appropriate punishment of it, one of its top priorities in 2012. It is ultimately up to Congress, however, to address the perceived disproportionality of these guidelines, as it eventually did with crack cocaine. Given the strong emotions and revulsion among the public about this crime, it is unclear at this time whether Congress will do so. In the meantime, the controversy rages on in federal courtrooms here in Massachusetts and across the country.
Michael J. Pelgro is a Partner at Perry, Krumsiek & Jack, LLP in Boston, where he specializes in criminal defense, internal investigations, and civil litigation. He spent several years as a state and federal prosecutor and was Chief of the Drug Unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston.
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