Study Reveals Wide Sentencing Disparities in U.S. Courts

Strict sentencing guidelines are almost universally viewed as unfair by both judges and defendants but a new study of federal courts has revealed the existence of problematic sentencing disparities among U.S. judges who are not restricted by sentencing guidelines. The new analysis focuses on all federal criminal cases during the past five years. The study was done by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University and encompasses 370,000 cases decided by 885 judges.

“Because the report examines differences in sentencing practices within individual districts where judges presumably receive the same general mix of cases, this finding raises questions about the extent to which sentences in some districts are influenced by the particular judge who sentenced the defendant rather than just the facts of that case,” TRAC researchers wrote.

For example, in the Eastern District of New York the median sentence in a drug case is two years in prison, but one judge has an average sentencing rate of one year whereas another judge in the same district issues a median drug sentence rate of over five years.

In Texas the disparity was even more dramatic. Some judges in the Northern District of Texas issue a median prison sentence of five years for drug offenders but a judge in the same district issues sentences that are typically over 13 years long.

A former judge in Boston says that she is in favor of the publication of judge-specific data but believes that the TRAC report it is insufficient to show the root causes of the disparities. Calculations on sentencing disparities do not take into consideration whether a prosecutor lowers sentences for cooperating defendants or cut generous plea agreements.

“This kind of data doesn’t show very much,” the former judge said. “It doesn’t begin to address caseload or prosecutorial decisions. It doesn’t begin to address disparity.”

It is unclear whether the TRAC data will be researched by policymakers, but it has already stoked the debate on mandatory sentencing guidelines. The TRAC data will be updated monthly and available for free online.

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