Tuesday, March 06, 2012

What's worse than sentencing disparity?

Sentencing consistency.  Hobgoblins and all that

Professor Doug Berman is all over the new study by TRAC examining sentencing practices of the individual federal judges.  From his most recent post:
Unfortunately, based only on the publicly available materials set out by TRAC here in this simple report, I find it extremely hard to reach any new or refined views or conclusions about post-Booker sentencing practices. It seems that one must purchase a TRAC subscription to be only able even to understand the nature and potential limits of the data that TRAC has assembled concerning the sentencings of individual judges. Moreover, based on the TRAC reporting, I fear that the TRAC data only includes final sentencing outcomes and lacks any refined information about applicable mandatory minimums, calculated guideline ranges, offender criminal histories and other obviously relevant considerations that may be driving different sentencing patterns in different sets of cases.

Notably, at the end of the TRAC report, the folks at TRAC praise their justifiably praise their data compilation efforts with this comment: "TRAC has collected hundreds of thousands of required records, analyzed them in a new way and developed a sophisticated online system so that judges, law schools, scholars, public interest groups, Congress and others can easily access them and be better informed about the best ways to achieve the broad goal of improving the federal courts." I very much like this sentiment, and hope in the days and weeks ahead to see judges, law schools, scholars, public interest groups, Congress and others trying to unpack the TRAC data so we can all better understand and assess what it may be telling us.
The AP gives some generalities about the study:

A new study shows that federal judges are handing out widely disparate sentences for similar crimes 30 years after Congress tried to create fairer results, but the differences don't line up with the party of the president who appointed the judges, despite any impressions that Republicans or Democrats may be tougher or softer on crime.

Sentencing data from the past five years that was analyzed for The Associated Press by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse during this presidential election year show that sentences for the same types of crimes vary significantly between judges in the same courthouse. But the party of the president who picked a judge is not a good predictor of whether a judge will be tough or lenient on a defendant found guilty at trial.

The analysis showed the judges who meted out the harshest average sentences after trials for three of the most common types of crime — drugs, weapons and white-collar charges — were split evenly between the two parties, based on which president appointed them....

The sentencing disparities can be vast, but the study shows they are not partisan. For example, defendants convicted in a drug trial in the Southern District of California got an average sentence of 17 years before Republican-appointed judges, compared with six years before Democratic counterparts. But a weapons conviction after trial in the Eastern District of Michigan resulted in an average sentence of 21 years before the Democratic-appointed judges and an average of less than 12 from the Republican ones.

Those figures come from TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University that uses the Freedom of Information Act to collect data about federal law enforcement activities.

On Monday, TRAC planned to launch the first publicly available database of sentencing records, sortable by judge, after a 15-year struggle to get records from a reluctant Justice Department. The center has filed FOIA lawsuits against the department four times, dating to 1998, and combined the hundreds of thousands of records it ultimately obtained with information directly from the federal courts to produce the database.

The database, available to anyone who pays $65 a month for a TRAC subscription, shows how many sentencings each federal judge has handled from the 2007-2011 budget years, the average sentence each issues and how long on average it takes the judge to dispose of a case. It compares each judge's figures with others in the same district and across the country, as well as the percentage of their cases by type of crime. That data could be useful to researchers or attorneys trying to gauge the odds their clients face with a particular judge.

TRAC co-director David Burnham said the data raises questions about the extent to which the goal of equal justice under the law is being served in some districts. He said TRAC doggedly pursued the data because it's vital the public and the courts have evidence that could improve the justice system....
In my view, the old system in which sentences were driven by mandatory sentencing guidelines created by sentencing commissioners is much much worse than federal district judges evaluating the particular case and individual appearing before the court.  Cases are different.  Defendants are different.  Districts are different.  Sentences then must be individualized. 

No comments: