Making the Punishment Fit the (Computer) Crime: Rebooting Notions of Possession for the Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography Offenses

43 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2010

Date Written: February 5, 2010


Sexual exploitation of children is a real and disturbing problem. However, when it comes to the sentencing of child pornography possessors, the U.S. federal system has its problem as well. This Article adds to the current, heated discussion on what is happening in the sentencing of federal child pornography possession offenses, why nobody is satisfied, and how much the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are to blame. At the heart of this Article are the forgotten players in the discussion – the computer and the internet – and their role in changing the realities of child pornography possession. This Article argues that the computer and internet are important factors in understanding both the victimization of the children portrayed in the illegal images and the formulation of appropriate punishment for those who view and possess such images. However, little attention has been paid to the effect computer behavior and the internet have on the actual manner in which offenders possess child pornography and little thought given to what punishment is warranted given the characteristics of that possession. While some district judges are thinking about these issues when they sentence, they have little guidance from experts in the fields of punishment and sexual crimes because sentencing guidance provided to judges has largely been restricted to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Unfortunately, in promulgating Guidelines for child pornography possession offenses, the United States Sentencing Commission has largely treated child pornography possession offenses as traditional possession crimes, and has been increasingly influenced by Congress’ response to political pressure to severely punish such offenders without regard to the stated purposes of punishment. Now that the Guidelines are no longer mandatory, many judges are forgoing the Guidelines’ advice when it comes to sentencing the possessors of child pornography and forging out on their own. Critics say that those judges are being too lenient. While there may be truth to that argument, what is even more apparent is that judges are ill-equipped to respond to the punishment needs of this group of offenders, critics of lenient sentences are discounting the faults in the Guidelines, and the computer and internet have been causing all of the controversy without being a big part of the discussion. A system reboot is in order.

This Article recognizes that child pornography possessors should be punished for the harm and danger that the offense creates and the exploitation that the offense represents. Ultimately, though, this Article argues that any enhancements to child pornography possession sentences should reflect aspects of the offense that actually make the offender more harmful than the typical child pornography possessor. To make this argument, the Article will introduce the genuine problem of the sexual exploitation of children that this country faces. It will explain the specific federal crime of child pornography possession and the methods taken to commit the crime. Further, the Article discusses the sentencing of child pornography possessors, explaining the current Federal Sentencing Guidelines approach, the rebellion of district judges against the Guidelines’ advisory sentencing ranges, as well as the criticism levied at those judges. After exposing the system failure that requires a rebooting of the sentencing approach, the Article proposes a new manner of thinking about child pornography possession as a computer crime that is very different from ordinary possession crimes. This new approach seeks to understand the internet and computer in order to develop a system of punishment that will at least move toward achieving the congressionally-identified goals of punishment. Ultimately, it is not the purpose of this article to suggest an appropriate range of sentences for child pornography possession; nor is the goal necessarily to have the Guidelines ranges for child pornography possessors reduced. Rather, this Article emphasizes that finding a method of giving meaningful guidance to district judges in order to appropriately punish child pornography possessors is necessary, and that this is impossible to do without making the punishment fit the realities of internet and computer crimes.

Keywords: sentencing, technology

Suggested Citation

Exum, Jelani, Making the Punishment Fit the (Computer) Crime: Rebooting Notions of Possession for the Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography Offenses (February 5, 2010). Richmond Journal of Law and Technology, 2010. Available at SSRN:

Jelani Exum (Contact Author)

Detroit Mercy Law ( email )

651 East Jefferson Avenue
Detroit, MI 48226
United States
313-596-0219 (Phone)

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