The Problems of Law Enforcement

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If the laws on the books are sufficient, then what explains the lack of effective enforcement of obscenity laws throughout most parts of the country? The evidence is unquestionable that with few exceptions the obscenity laws that are on the books go unenforced. As of the dates when the testimony was presented to us, cities as large as Miami, Florida, and Buffalo, New York, had but one police officer assigned to enforcement of the obscenity laws. Chicago, Illinois, had two. Los Angeles, California, had fewer than ten. The City of New York will not take action against establishments violating the New York obscenity laws unless there is a specific complaint, and even then prosecution is virtually non-existent. Federal law enforcement is limited almost exclusively to child pornography and to a few major operations against large pornography production and distribution networks linked to organized crime. From January 1, 1978, to February 27, 1986, a total of only one hundred individuals were indicted for violation of the federal obscenity laws, and of the one hundred indicted seventy-one were convicted.[52]

From this and much more evidence just like it, the conclusion is unmistakable that with respect to the criminal laws relating to obscenity, there is a striking under enforcement, and that this under-enforcement consists of under-complaining, under-investigation, under-prosecution, and under-sentencing. The reasons for this are complex, and we regret that we have not been able to explore nearly as much as we would have liked the reasons for this complex phenomenon. We offer here only a few hypotheses, and hope that further research by criminologists and others will continue where we leave off.

With respect to sentencing, the evidence was almost unanimous that small fines and unsupervised probation are the norm, with large fines or sentences of incarceration quite rare throughout the country. In examining this phenomenon, we can speculate on a number of problems. When the prosecution involves as defendants those with significant control over the enterprise, the defendant is likely to appear as very much like the typical "white collar" criminal nicely dressed, well-spoken, and with a residence in the suburbs. A person fitting this description is least likely in contemporary America to receive jail time, regardless of the crime. In this respect we suspect that the problem of under-sentencing is traceable to the same causes that have produced the same phenomenon with regard to other crimes. People who have control over the sale of illegally obscene materials do not go to jail for many of the same reasons that price fixers, odometer adjusters, and securities manipulators do not go to jail, and if they do it is still less often and for less time than do people committing other crimes that allow equivalent statutory sentences. Moreover, like these and other crimes, obscenity offenses often appear to both judges and probation officers as less serious than violent crimes, and often as even less serious than various crimes against property. To a significant extent, those involved in the sentencing process tend not to perceive obscenity violations as serious crimes. Whether these judgments of seriousness made by judges and probation officers are or are not correct is of course debatable, but the point remains that there seems to be a substantial interposition of judgment of seriousness between the legislative determination and the actual sentence. As a result, sentencing usually involves only a fine and unsupervised probation, and is often treated by the defendant as little more than a cost of doing business.[53]

With respect to those without ownership or managerial control, usually ticket takers or clerks, many judges and probation officers seem understandably reluctant to impose periods of incarceration on people who are likely to be relatively short-term employees earning little more than the minimum wage. Although in some cases ticket takers or clerks are involved with the business itself, more often they are not. With some justification in fact, therefore, some judges perceive that people who would but for fortune be clerks in candy stores rather than clerks in pornography outlets should not receive jail time for having taken the only job that may have been available to them.

Whatever the causes of under-sentencing, it is apparent that with the current state of sentencing the criminal laws have very little deterrent effect on the sale or distribution of legally obscene materials. Although we have recommended mandatory minimum sentences for second and further offenses, some of us are not convinced that this will actually serve as a solution, for in many areas mandatory sentencing may result in plea bargains for lesser charges, or prosecutorial reluctance to proceed against someone the prosecutor is unwilling to see go to jail. None of us are certain about the effects of mandatory sentencing, and mandatory sentencing may be appropriate if it comports with practices for crimes of equivalent seriousness within a jurisdiction. But we fear that the problem of under-sentencing is more complex than simple, and to the extent that mandatory minimum sentencing may in practice be only cosmetic, it should not blunt efforts to look further for the roots of the problem of under-sentencing.

The problem of under-sentencing is likely to affect the level of prosecution. When the end result of even a successful prosecution is a fine that is insignificant compared to the profits of the operation, or at most a period of incarceration that is so minimal as to have insignificant deterrent effect, the incentive to prosecute diminishes on the part of both prosecutors and law enforcement personnel. The potentially light sentence magnifies the fact that obscenity prosecutions are likely to be properly perceived as necessitating a high expenditure of time and resources as well as being, in terms of the likelihood of securing a conviction, high risk enterprises. The defendants will usually be represented by sophisticated lawyers with a mandate to engage in a vigorous and extensive defense. It would be a rare prosecutor who did not understand the difference between prosecuting a mugger represented by a young public defender with too many cases and too little time and resources, on the one hand, and, on the other, prosecuting a pornography distributor who has a team of senior trial lawyers at his disposal and who will probably receive only a minimal sentence even if convicted.

In addition to the fact that obscenity prosecutions are seen as high risk and low reward ventures for prosecutors and law enforcement personnel, it is also the case that being involved in obscenity investigation or obscenity prosecution is likely to be lower in the hierarchy of esteemed activities within a prosecutorial office or within a police department. This may stem in part from the extent to which the personal views of many people within those departments are such as to treat these matters as not especially serious. The extent to which this is so, and the extent to which there are other factors we. have been unable to isolate, we cannot at this time determine. But we are confident that the phenomenon exists.

The upshot of all of the above is that we are forced to conclude that the problem of under-prosecution cannot be remedied simply by saying that enforcement of the obscenity laws ought to have a higher priority, or simply by providing more money for enforcement, or simply by increasing the amount of community and political pressure on all those involved in the law enforcement effort. We do not discount any of these approaches, as all have proved effective at times when used in conjunction with other techniques of changing law enforcement practices; but it is clear that the dynamics are sufficiently complex that no one remedy for the problem will suffice. There is a multiplicity of factors explaining the lack of enforcement, and changing that situation will require a multiplicity of remedies. We urge that many of the specific recommendations we suggest be taken seriously.

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