But woe to that man by whom the offense cometh

United States v. Helton, No. 13-4412 (4th Cir. Apr. 2, 2015).

This case pulls one’s sympathies in directly opposite directions. Steven Helton, the defendant in this case, repeatedly downloaded a large amount of child pornography. He also admits to molesting a three-year old when he was thirteen. Yet Helton—who is now twenty one, but was only nineteen when he was arrested—was himself sexually abused by his stepfather at the age of six. Thereafter, he was transferred from foster home to foster home, and was eventually admitted to a sex offender treatment facility at the age of fourteen. 

The federal government charged Helton with possession of child pornography, and he pleaded guilty. The district court sentenced him to five years in prison followed by a lifetime term of supervised release.

Helton now appeals his lifetime of supervised release. The Fourth Circuit must decide this appeal against the backdrop of the federal Sentencing Guidelines for child pornography.

The federal Sentencing Commission has generally developed its Sentencing Guidelines using an “empirical approach,” taking pre-guidelines practice as a benchmark to determine which distinctions among offenders and offenses have been treated as important. The Guidelines for child pornography are different, though. In 2003, Congress directly amended the Guidelines to require harsher penalties for child pornography. 

Congressional intervention in child-porn sentencing has led to what the Second Circuit has described as “irrationality.” In some cases, for example, a defendant who has repeatedly raped a child will receive a lighter sentence than a defendant who possesses child pornography but has never had sexual contact with a child. 

Since 2005, when the Supreme Court invalidated the Sentencing Guidelines in Booker, the Guidelines have been advisory rather than mandatory. Current law, however, still makes the Guidelines a district court’s starting place. 

Here, the district court determined that the recommended prison term for Helton under the Guidelines was too harsh, and thus (in the post-Booker lingo) “departed downward” from the Guidelines sentence. By contrast, in sentencing Helton to a lifetime of supervised release, the district court stuck with the Guidelines, believing lifelong supervision was necessary to prevent Helton from offending again. 

The Fourth Circuit affirms the sentence as reasonable, noting that the reduction of the prison term and the lifetime of supervised release were “linked.” Judge Gregory concurs in the panel’s opinion, but writes separately to note that, in light of the peculiar status of the child-pornography Sentencing Guidelines, the reasonableness of Helton’s lifetime of supervised release presents a closer question than the majority’s opinion might suggest.