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July 28, 2010

New York Times editorial urges review of white-collar and child porn sentences

This morning's editorial page of the New York Times includes this thoughtful piece titled "Rethinking Criminal Sentences." Here are excerpts:

Sentencing for white-collar crimes — and for child pornography offenses — “has largely lost its moorings,” according to the Justice Department, which makes a strong case that the matter should be re-examined by the United States Sentencing Commission....

As a general principle, sentences for the same federal crimes should be consistent. As the Justice Department notes in its report, a sense of arbitrariness — sentences that depend on the luck of getting a certain judge — will “breed disrespect for the federal courts,” damaging their reputation and the deterrent effect of punishment.

Possession of a single piece of child pornography, for example, is supposed to result in a five-to-seven-year sentence — longer with aggravating circumstances — but many judges instead are imposing probation or one year for first offenses. Many federal judges have told the sentencing commission that the child pornography guidelines are far too severe.

The Justice Department is not explicitly recommending that sentences be lowered; in fact, the new financial regulatory law suggests higher sentences in some areas. But readjusting the guidelines downward in some cases is clearly one of the possible routes the sentencing commission could take. The rules for child pornography, for example, include extra penalties for using a computer, but everyone in that repugnant world uses a computer, rendering the rules obsolete.

The key in both areas is helping judges find ways to differentiate the worst offenders from those who have caused less damage or are less of a threat to society. White-collar sentences are now based on the size of the fraud, but that may not be the best way to measure the role of a defendant or the venality and damage involved.

As repellent as child pornography is, it does not help judges when someone found with a few photographs is held to similar standards as someone disseminating thousands of them. These are sensitive areas, but a thoughtful re-examination by the commission and Congress could bring new respect for the federal judiciary.

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July 28, 2010 at 09:43 AM | Permalink

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Posted by: Steven Yoon | Aug 17, 2010 12:45:04 PM

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