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Can you get a life sentence for making child pornography?

Finding a possibility that the sentencing judge had a “clearly erroneous understanding of the facts,” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals last week sent back a sixty-year child pornography sentence for another look by the district court. In United States v. Brown, the defendant had pled guilty to three counts of producing and two counts of possessing child pornography under 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and § 2252A(a)(5)(B). The trial court sentenced him to sixty years: effectively a life sentence.

In sending the case back to the sentencing court, Judge Rosemary Pooler noted the difference between producing child pornography and other, more serious crimes such as torture and murder.  As the Supreme Court has said, there is a categorical difference between defendants who “kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken” and those who harm others without causing or intending death. “This is because life is over for the victim of the murderer, but for the victim of even a very serious non-homicide crime, life is not over and normally is not beyond repair. Although an offense like robbery or rape is a serious crime deserving serious punishment, those crimes differ from homicide crimes in a moral sense.”

The circuit court also reasoned that an effective life sentence for a non-homicide offender could “frustrate the goal of marginal deterrence.” Prison sentences should, the court reasoned, be imposed as a way to deter individuals from re-committing the same crime.  In fact, defendants in child porn cases are generally less likely to re-offend as they get older. Finally, because the defendant would be subject to a lifetime term of supervised release and be required to register as a sex offender, there is an even lesser chance of him re-offending. The case was sent back to the district court for re-sentencing.

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