Federal Sentencing Shows Dramatic Differences by Judge, but Not by Party

Friday, March 09, 2012
Regardless of which political party chose them or the circumstances of the cases presided over, federal judges have varied widely in their sentencing decisions, according to an investigation by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
After reviewing 372,232 cases that were heard by 885 different district judges during the last five years, TRAC analysts uncovered “hard-to-explain differences in the sentencing practices by the judges working in many federal districts.” The crimes in question varied from drugs offenses to white collar and other kinds of violations.
The greatest variations in sentencing most often occurred in larger districts with many judges. In districts with two, three of four judges, the sentencing difference from judge to judge were usually not so great. However this was not always the case, as the district with least variation in drug offense sentencing was one of the largest—Southern California.
The most extreme example was the Northern District of Texas, which encompasses Dallas and Fort Worth. The median drug-related sentence handed out by individual judges ranged from 5 years to more than 13 years. In the Eastern District of Virginia, which includes Alexandria, Norfolk and Richmond, the median drug sentence for one judge was 2½ years, while for three others it was 10 years.
For white collar crime, the most extreme district was the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago. One judge meted out average sentences of 30 months, but for another judge the median sentence was…0 months.
The Associated Press, which requested the analysis by TRAC, reported that findings show the political affiliation of the president who picked a judge was not a good predictor of whether a judge will be tough or lenient on defendants.
-David Wallechinsky, Noel Brinkerhoff
To Learn More
Federal Sentences Still Vary Widely (by Nedra Pickler, Associated Press)
Wide Sentencing Disparity Found Among U.S. Judges (by Mosi Secret, New York Times)

Black Americans Given Longer Sentences than White Americans for Same Crimes (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov) 


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