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A sentence that no one is happy with

Apr 14, 2017

Two summers ago, something happened that gave parents nightmares throughout the Detroit area. A 20-year-old camp counselor at a Jewish community center was discovered to have been secretly photographing little boys naked and posting them on a Russian child porn website.

He also had written vivid fantasy descriptions of doing things to them, though a massive investigation turned up no evidence that he had ever touched a child.

He was then tried and convicted in federal court on child pornography charges. Earlier this week, the former counselor, Matthew Kuppe, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. That will be followed by seven years of supervision after he gets out. That is the result of a plea bargain agreement between the attorneys. But absolutely no one is happy with this.

Not the parents of the children involved, not the defense attorney, and not the judge, Avern Cohn, who has been criticized for allegedly caring more about the defendant’s rights and feelings than those of the children involved.

Some were horrified when, while Kuppe was awaiting trial, the judge allowed him to remain at home with his parents on an electronic tether under strict conditions – he couldn’t go near a computer, for example -- rather than being in a prison cell.

Well, I’ve known Judge Cohn for a long time. He is often irascible, but he is extremely rational, and motivated entirely by the law. His decision to allow Kuppe to remain under what amounted to house arrest was based on that he had no prior record, and there was no evidence that he represented any danger to the community away from the internet.

But now he’ll spend close to a decade in prison. Even his own attorney acknowledged that he deserves punishment. But how does this sentence serve society?

When Kuppe is released what prospects will he have to build a life? Who will hire a convicted child pornographer on the sex offender list?

There are many cases like this. There are those, including some of the parents of the children whose privacy was violated, who want something like revenge.

But we are talking about someone who seems to have been mentally ill, and who has been undergoing intensive treatment since his arrest – treatment he won’t get in prison.

I think what the judge said in the courtroom after the sentencing is worth considering: “What I say not is not to diminish in any way the severity of the defendant’s conduct or the pain he had inflicted,” but “there is nothing in the criminal justice system that can reverse what happened in the past,” or lessen the pain some have felt.

Cohn quoted experts in the field, including the United States Sentencing Commission, as saying that the guidelines in child pornography cases are hopelessly out of date.

“No rational system of sentencing … would impose on him imprisonment for 10 years,” he said.

But the judge had no choice. Looked at rationally, this is clearly a troubled young man who does need massive mental health treatment. But society will pay far more to keep him locked up instead – vastly increasing the odds that he will be a danger to society when he does get out.

Sometimes, as Charles Dickens said, the law really is an ass.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.