What an amazing concept; dealing with sexual crimes without the guaranteed hysteria that is the hallmark of the American justice system. It's enough to take your breath away.
Judge Weinstein Takes on Child Pornography Laws
By A. G. Sulzberger
In his 43-year career as a federal judge, Jack B. Weinstein has come to be identified by his efforts to combat what he calls "the unnecessary cruelty of the law." His most recent crusade is particularly striking because of the beneficiary: a man who has amassed a vast collection of child pornography.
Judge Weinstein, who sits in the United States District Court in Brooklyn, has twice thrown out convictions that would have ensured that the man spend at least five years behind bars. He has pledged to break protocol and inform the next cast of jurors about the mandatory prison sentence that the charges carry. And he recently declared that the man, who is awaiting a new trial, did not need an electronic ankle bracelet because he posed "no risk to society."
There is little public sympathy for collectors of child pornography. Yet across the country, an increasing number of federal judges have come to their defense, criticizing changes to sentencing laws that have effectively quadrupled their average prison term over the last decade.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a 20-year child pornography sentence by ruling that the sentencing guidelines for such cases, "unless applied with great care, can lead to unreasonable sentences." The decision noted that the recommended sentences for looking at pictures of children being sexually abused sometimes eclipse those for actually sexually abusing a child.
Judge Weinstein has gone to extraordinary lengths to challenge the strict punishments, issuing a series of rulings that directly attack the mandatory five-year prison sentence faced by defendants charged with receiving child pornography.
"I don't approve of child pornography, obviously," he said in an interview this week. But, he also said, he does not believe that those who view the images -- as opposed to producing or selling them -- actually present a threat to children. Sending these men to prison for years, he said, is a miscarriage of justice.
"We're destroying lives unnecessarily," he said. "At the most, they should be receiving treatment and supervision."
The man he has spent three years trying to save from a long incarceration is Pietro Polizzi, a married father of five who collected more than 5,000 graphic pictures of children. If prosecuted in a New York State court, he would have faced a maximum prison sentence of four years. Instead, in federal court, he faced a minimum of five years and a recommended sentence of 11 to 14 years in prison. Only because of Judge Weinstein's intervention, he remains free as he awaits another trial.
"I don't see Judge Weinstein as a judge," Mr. Polizzi said during an interview as tears rolled down his face. "I see him as my father. He helps people. He doesn't destroy lives the way the prosecutor has. He's the one who is going to set me free from the court."
The child pornography industry has flourished through the Internet, with the number of federal cases growing from fewer than 100 annually to more than 1,600 last year. As the number of cases grew, Congress increased the recommended prison terms, and established a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for anyone convicted of receiving child pornography. According to the federal defenders office, the average sentence was 91 months in 2007, up from 21 months a decade before.
But the tough penalties have chafed at many judges, echoing previous battles over drug cases. Last year, judges imposed sentences below the recommended range in more than half of all child pornography cases.
"What has caused concern in courts across the nation is that we have a lot of relatively law-abiding individuals sitting in the basement downloading the wrong kind of dirty pictures facing not just prison sentences but incredibly long prison sentences," said Douglas A. Berman, a professor at Moritz College of Law, who studies sentencing issues.
In one recent case, James L. Graham, a United States District Court judge in Ohio, sentenced a 67-year-old man who had suffered a stroke to a single day in prison, along with restrictions on computer use and registration as a sex offender. The man had pleaded guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors to possession of child pornography, which carries no mandatory minimum sentence.