The U.S. Sentencing Commission kicked off the new year with a comprehensive report analyzing data from federal sex crime cases. The report, which runs 81 pages plus a 62-page appendix of charts and graphs, contains some eye-opening conclusions. The most significant for child pornography cases is this: even though there is “little meaningful distinction between the conduct involved in receipt and possession offenses,” average sentences for receipt are much longer than sentences for possession. The Sentencing Commission has been calling on Congress to “align” the penalties for receipt and possession of child pornography since 2011. The effect on sentencing of the different child pornography offenses is shown in the following chart:
The takeaway is something we clearly already knew: what you plead to matters. Average sentences for possession are lower than sentences for receipt — 26 months lower on average — even though the conduct is the same. Distribution convictions, which carry the same mandatory minimums as receipt, are much higher. Defendants and their attorneys must press prosecutors to permit them to plead to possession and not receipt or distribution. Even though receipt or distribution can be charged in the vast majority of cases, some prosecutors are open to pleas to possession, especially if the defense team can present mitigating circumstances.
The effect of statutory mandatory minimums is especially significant because the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which used to be binding on sentencing judges, are now merely advisory. As a result, judges increasingly impose below-Guidelines sentences in child pornography cases, which is illustrated in the following chart from the Commission’s report: