Report to the Congress:

Sex Offenses Against Children
Findings and Recommendations
Regarding Federal Penalties

June 1996

(as directed in the Sex Crimes Against Children Prevention Act of 1995, Section 6, Public Law 104-71)

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The United States Sentencing Commission submits this report at the request of Congress on a subject of deep concern -- sex offenses against children. In The Sex Crimes Against Children Prevention Act of 1995 (SCACPA), Congress addressed the serious problem of child pornography and other sex crimes against children and directed the Commission to increase certain penalties for these crimes. The Commission carried out that directive on April 30, 1996 by submitting to Congress guideline amendments that raised the penalties. The SCACPA also directed the Commission to prepare this report, analyzing the sentences imposed for these offenses, and to recommend additional amendments as appropriate. The Commission shares Congressional concerns about protecting America's children from sex offenders and has joined in the effort to do so by recommending a number of amendments that would target the most dangerous offenders, raise sentences, and improve the operation of the guidelines.

In preparing this report, the Commission analyzed all 1994 and 1995 sentences imposed under each of the relevant statutes--a total of 423 cases--to determine what kinds of sentences the defendants received and whether any modifications were necessary. Although federal sentencing policy potentially serves a variety of functions regardless of the number of cases involved, federal prosecutions of child sex offenses represent a small percentage of the total number of such cases nationwide: the vast majority of which are prosecuted in state courts. In addition, because of the nature of federal jurisdiction, 77% of the offenders sentenced in federal court for child sexual abuse were Native American. The Commission also notes that, although federal prosecution is important in the area of child pornography offenses, especially those involving the use of computers, the federal cases sentenced to date typically do not involve the type of computer use that would result in either wide dissemination or a likelihood that the material will be viewed by children. The number of cases sentenced under each of the relevant statutes and guidelines, as well as information about the sentences imposed, is contained in Section A, Table 1.

Penalties for sex offenses against children have been increased several times in recent years and are quite severe. Nevertheless, the Commission's analysis indicates that some amendments may be appropriate to increase sentences for the most dangerous offenders, to ensure consistency in sentencing, and to clarify certain provisions that have been improperly interpreted and used. It appears that a significant portion of child pornography offenders have a criminal history that involves the sexual abuse or exploitation of children and that those with such histories are at greater risk of recidivism. In order to ensure lengthy incarceration of repeat sex offenders who show the greatest risk of victimizing children, the Commission has significantly increased sentences for some child pornography offenses and is considering increases for other pornography and sexual abuse offenses. In addition, the Commission recommends that Congress increase certain statutory maximum penalties so that the guideline amendments designed to increase sentences are allowed to operate to their full extent without being capped by existing statutory limits. These recommendations, and other changes being considered to ensure correct and consistent sentencing under the guidelines, are summarized below and discussed in more detail in Section G.

Amendments submitted to Congress for implementation in 1996

  • As directed in the SCACPA, the Commission increased sentences for all pornography guidelines by approximately 25%. Sentences for promotion of prostitution and prohibited sexual conduct were increased by about one third. In addition, a further 25% increase was provided for the use of a computer in child pornography offenses.
  • The Commission increased pornography production sentences by 25% if computers were used to solicit participation in sexually explicit conduct by or with a minor for the production of child pornography.
  • In order to ensure lengthy incarceration of the most dangerous repeat offenders, the Commission expanded the definition of a "pattern of activity" involving the sexual exploitation or abuse of a minor as applied to pornography trafficking offenses. Sentences will be increased by five offense levels -- a potential doubling of the sentence -- for offenders who engage in a pattern of activity, whether or not the conduct is part of the offense of conviction. Sentences may also be imposed above the guideline range by upward departure if the pattern of activity adjustment does not adequately reflect the seriousness of the offense.

Recommendation to amend statutory maximum penalties

  • Congress should increase the statutory maximum for production of child pornography to 15 years and double the statutory maximum for those offenders who have prior convictions for state or federal sex offenses against children. This will permit the sentence increases in the pending amendments and other amendments under consideration to work without being capped by the statutory maximum penalties.

Additional amendments currently under consideration by the Commission

  • The Commission will consider adding the five-level "pattern of activity" adjustment currently found only in the pornography trafficking/receipt guideline to the pornography production and possession guidelines. The Commission will also consider adding a "pattern of activity" adjustment to the sexual abuse of a minor guideline, either as a required enhancement or as a basis for upward departure from the guideline range. Alternatively, the Commission will consider increasing the base offense level for the sexual abuse of a minor guideline.
  • The Commission will consider modifying the definition of "distribution" of pornography in the pornography trafficking/receipt guideline to clearly provide that both commercial distribution for money and non-pecuniary trading of images are subject to increased punishment.
  • Because similar pornography receipt and possession cases are often sentenced differently, the Commission will consider whether to consolidate the trafficking/receipt and possession guidelines to ensure that similar cases are sentenced consistently regardless of the statute under which the offender was convicted. This could result in lower sentences for certain receipt cases, and higher sentences for certain possession cases which would have a higher base offense level and be subject to enhancements under the trafficking/receipt guideline. This may require Congressional action to amend a previously enacted directive to the Commission so that the Commission has clear authority to further consider this option.

United States Sentencing Commission