Sentencing Law

How Much Time Will I Serve for Sexual Abuse?

Most crimes, including sex offenses, are handled at the state level. That’s because the federal government has left it to the states to enact their own criminal laws. A sex crime becomes a federal charge when the offense violates federal law or crosses state boundaries. As a result, the kind of crime you get charged with, along with how much time you’ll face in prison, will depend on which state the crime was committed in.

If you find yourself charged with a sex crime, consult with an expert who is familiar with your state’s specific laws.

Federal Sexual Abuse Offenses

As opposed to state prosecutions, federal prosecutions involving sexual abuse crimes are relatively rare. In 2020, for example, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), a federal agency that tracks federal sentencing, reported that only 0.01% of all federal sentencing was for sexual abuse crimes. The USSC categorizes sexual abuse crimes as:

  • Rape
  • Statutory rape
  • Criminal sexual abuse of a ward
  • Abusive sexual contact
  • Promoting a commercial sex act
  • Travel to engage in prohibited sexual conduct with a minor
  • Child exploitation enterprises

But Congress has increased sentencing for convicted federal sex offenders several times over the last couple of decades. While rare, criminal defendants accused of sex crimes in federal court face significant penalties, including fines and imprisonment. In many cases, sentences are enhanced by aggravating circumstances such as:

  • Using physical force
  • Inflicting injury (including battery) or death
  • Kidnapping
  • Using a deadly weapon

Many sexual abuse crimes also carry mandatory minimum sentences, meaning judges cannot issue a prison sentence below a certain minimum threshold. The USSC reports that in 2021, 99.5% of sexual abuse offenders received prison time, with an average sentence of over 17 years, and 73% of convictions carried a mandatory minimum sentence.

Understanding the Sex Crime Data

This article looks at sentencing data for federal sexual abuse crimes to note any trends, disparities, and key takeaways. All data is from 2019 unless otherwise noted. It is taken directly from the USSC, which makes sentencing data available to the public. The USSC generally categorizes sex crimes into two categories: child pornography and sexual abuse. This article focuses only on sexual abuse crimes.

The data and information here are not intended to be used as a way to predict a specific potential criminal sentence. Sentencing is determined according to the charges, federal sentencing guidelines, statutory minimum, and maximum sentences, previous criminal history, and other factors. Individual cases vary, and you should always speak to a lawyer if you find yourself under criminal investigation.

Federal Sex Abuse Sentencing By the Numbers

Generally, sex crimes are prosecuted by the state where the alleged crime occurred. However, the federal government may prosecute when the crime occurs on federal property, where the alleged crime involves multiple states, or if there are aggravating factors that make the alleged act a federal crime.

The following table looks at the number of total sentences issued by federal jurisdictions in 2019. Many more offenders were sentenced in state court. The data suggests that population size plays a role in the number of total sentences issued, but it does not necessarily mean that any federal jurisdiction is more likely to prosecute sex abuse crimes than others.

Federal JurisdictionNumber of Sentences
New York70
South Dakota35
New Mexico26
North Carolina24
Puerto Rico21
North Dakota19
West Virginia14
South Carolina13
Rhode Island11
Washington, D.C.9
New Jersey7
New Hampshire6
U.S. Virgin Islands3

Broad takeaways from average sentence by jurisdiction should also be limited, as many factors can influence sentence length. For example, according to the data, in 2020 the average sentence for statutory rape was 43 months compared to 192 for rape (“criminal sexual abuse”). States with more offenders convicted of statutory rape will necessarily have a lower average sentence compared to states with more offenders convicted of rape. The following table shows the average sentence length across all federal jurisdictions in 2019.

Federal JurisdictionAverage Sentence Length (In Months)
New Hampshire290
North Carolina273
New Mexico196
South Carolina196
New Jersey183
New York183
Rhode Island175
West Virginia162
Puerto Rico153
South Dakota119
North Dakota92

Nearly all offenders convicted of a federal crime categorized as sexual abuse received prison time. The following table looks at the type of sentence issued. “Prison + Confinement” conditions means that the offender has to spend time in prison but may serve part of their sentence under house arrest or other restrictive conditions.

Type of SentenceNumber of Sentences Issued
Prison + Confinement Conditions33
Prison Only (No Alternatives)1106
Probation + Confinement Conditions3
Probation Only4

Sexual Abuse Defendants More Likely To Go to Trial

Only about 2% of all federal defendants typically choose to go to trial. This is not true of criminal defendants accused of a sex abuse crimes. Within the latter category, while most defendants do end up reaching a plea deal, more defendants choose to go to trial than for many other federal crimes.

One reason that defendants opt for trial rather than pleading guilty may be that the more significant penalties associated with federal sex crimes (along with mandatory minimum sentences) give defendants less incentive to agree to a plea deal. While sex offenders do often receive a lighter sentence than suggested by the federal sentencing guidelines, federal prosecutors may not be as willing or able to offer reduced sentencing for defendants who plead guilty.

Plea Deal or TrialPercentage of Total OffendersAverage Sentence (In Months)
Guilty Plea91%194
Guilty Plea and Trial.08%300
Jury Trial8% (includes bench trials)268
Trial by Judge or Bench Trial8% (includes jury trials)470

But going to trial is not without risk. Defendants who were sentenced after being convicted at trial were sentenced to a lot more time in prison.

Most Sentences Fall Within Federal Sentencing Guidelines

While federal sentencing guidelines are no longer binding, the largest group of sentences fell within recommended guideline ranges (38%).

A departure from the sentencing guidelines is a higher or lower sentence based on guideline factors, such as previous criminal history. A variance from the guidelines is a sentence that falls outside of recommended guideline ranges. Most departures and variances involved judges issuing a lighter-than-recommended sentence, rather than a heavier sentence.

Departures and VariancesNumber of Sentences Issued
5K1.1/Substantial Assistance58
Above Range Variance38
Below Range Variance312
Downward Departure16
Government Sponsored Departure61
Government Sponsored Variance208
Upward Departure14
Within Range439

The largest downward departures (where the sentence given was less than the guidelines) involved defendants who cooperated with and assisted prosecutors. Defendants who cooperated received, on average, a seven-year reduction in their sentence.

Most Offenders Had a Criminal History

As with most federal offenses, many of the criminal defendants accused of a sexual abuse crime had a previous criminal history. Offenders with a prior record received an average increased sentence of six years.

Criminal HistoryNumber of Sentences IssuedAverage Sentence (In Months)
No Criminal History123136
Yes, There Is Criminal History1023208

Education Level

Sex abuse crimes do not appear to be associated with any particular education level. In 2019, most sex abuse offenders were high school graduates. However, a significant number also had at least some college completed at the time of sentencing. There also does not appear to be a statistically significant difference in sentencing based on education level.

 Education LevelNumber of Sentences IssuedAverage Sentence (In Months)
College Graduate139201.5
H.S. Graduate426202.6
Less Than H.S. Graduate233181.8
Not on List4171.8
Some College344210

Sentencing Breakdown by Race

Technically, race is prohibited from being considered explicitly as a factor in sentence length in any criminal case. In practice, however, this might play out differently, and there have been numerous questions raised about racial disparities in sentencing.

In a 2020 article published in the journal Sexual Abuse, researchers at the University of Texas, San Antonio, studied USSC data from 2007 — 2016 on sentencing for sexual abuse and child pornography, and found that “Blacks are subject to receiving longer sentences over time compared with Whites [sic].”

However, in looking solely at 2019 data from the USSC, the limited data does not account for other sentencing factors such as prior criminal history.

The following table shows the number and average sentences issued by race. In 2019, white, non-Hispanic offenders received a higher average sentence than Black and Native American offenders. While Asian offenders received the highest total average sentence, with only 20 total sentences issued any conclusions regarding 2019 data should be limited.

RaceEthnicityNumber of Sentences IssuedAverage Sentence Length
American Indian\Alaskan NativeHispanic2 42.8
American Indian\Alaskan NativeNot Available867.9
American Indian\Alaskan NativeNon-Hispanic145121
Asian or Pacific IslanderHispanic2150
Asian or Pacific IslanderNot Available2265
Asian or Pacific IslanderNon-Hispanic16173.5
Black/African AmericanHispanic14154.6
Black/African AmericanNot Available8180
Black/African AmericanNon-Hispanic187183
White/CaucasianHispanic131 204.1
White/CaucasianNot Available25206.2

Sentencing Breakdown by Age and Gender

Research suggests that female sex offenders receive more lenient sentencing than males. According to 2019 data from the USSC, women received less prison time than men in all age groups. Recent research also suggests that women commit acts of sexual abuse more often than previously thought. However, men were far more likely to be convicted of a sexual abuse offense than women.

AgeGenderNumber of Sentences IssuedTotal Average Sentence (In Months)
20 & YoungerFemale382
20 & YoungerMale1481.9
21 – 25Female1666.7
21 – 25Male129144.6
26 – 30Female21180.5
26 – 30Male193190.6
31 – 35Female13202
31 – 35Male194217.9
36 – 40Female6228
36 – 40Male161246.5
41 – 50Female7152.6
41 – 50Male208215.6
51 – 60Female363
51 – 60Male111205.5
61 & OlderMale67194

Attorney Deborah Goodwin, in a 2019 law review article published in the William and Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, suggests that “female sex offenders may elicit more of an emotional response from prosecutors and judges which conflicts with their understanding of sexual criminals in general.” In other words, implicit bias may be playing a role in sentencing by gender for federal sex abuse crimes.

Key Takeaways

According to recent sentencing data, most criminal defendants convicted of a federal sex abuse crime will:

  • Receive a significant prison sentence
  • Be male
  • Plead guilty
  • Receive a sentence within recommended federal sentencing guidelines.

How Can a Lawyer Help Fight Sex Abuse Charges?

Law enforcement and prosecutors take sexual assault charges seriously and defendants can face significant penalties under criminal law. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you defend against felony offenses. In some cases, your lawyer can negotiate to reduce your prison term by pleading the case down to a misdemeanor.

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