WASHINGTON – 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.
In the 10 court districts with the most drug case sentences after trial, Republican-appointed judges assigned stiffer average sentences in five districts, but Democratic appointees gave longer penalties in the other five. In weapons cases as well, the longest average sentences were issued by Democratic appointees in five districts and by Republican-appointed judges in the other five.
For white-collar crimes, only seven districts had at least 20 trials for judges from each party over the past five years, and the split was Democratic-appointees tougher in four and Republican ones in three.
Spurred by wide variations in sentences, Congress tried in 1984 to create more uniform outcomes with the Sentencing Reform Act. The law set up a commission that wrote guidelines for judges to follow as they punished convicts, with similar sentences for offenders with comparable criminal histories convicted of the same crimes.
But law's requirement that judges stick to these sentencing guidelines was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. Judges still must calculate the guidelines, with numerical values given for factors such as the seriousness of the offense and the defendant's criminal record. But the judges are not bound by the result. They have complete discretion on how much time each defendant convicted at trial in their courtroom should receive — or if they should be imprisoned at all — subject to appellate review.
Russell Wheeler, an expert on federal courts, said after the Supreme Court made the guidelines optional, many observers expected that judges still would use them out of habit and tradition, and because they can shield the judges from too much disparity.
"Perhaps that view has worn off now and they are back to fashioning sentences that are more individualistic," said Wheeler, the former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center who teaches law at American University.
"I think judges try to be bound by the facts, bound by the jury and bound by the law," he said. "Sentencing is the one area where the law doesn't constrain them very much."
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.
"Criminal defense attorneys, for example, have long relied on anecdotal, sometimes gossipy information to advise their clients about the judge who is handling their case," said Burnham, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times whose articles on police corruption in the 1970s inspired the movie "Serpico," starring Al Pacino. "Every defendant should be able to have access to reliable information."
A striking difference jumps out on first glance at the database: The huge variation in workloads between judges.
Eleven judges in Southwest border states handled more than 800 cases on average a year, because of the large number of illegal immigrants captured in the region. All of the judges ranked in the top 25 for heaviest caseload are from Southwest border districts, led by U.S. District Judge Robert Brack in New Mexico with 6,331 sentencings over the five years and Judges George Kazen and Micaela Alvarez from the Southern District of Texas with more than 5,750 each.
The border judges have long complained that they are burdened with too many cases to give them proper consideration and instead have to resort to a type of assembly line sentencing to get them through the system. The national average is fewer than 100 sentencings a year per judge, counting both sentencings after trials and after guilty pleas, often in bargains with prosecutors.
With the White House election looming, the AP asked TRAC to look at sentence length by the party of the president who appointed the judge to see if the White House race might have an impact on criminal sentences. The AP asked to restrict these comparisons to punishments imposed after a trial to eliminate the outsized influence that prosecutors have on the sentences imposed as a result of plea bargain deals with defendants. In those bargains, a defendant usually pleads guilty in exchange for prosecutors' agreeing to an often reduced sentence range that judges almost always adhere to. Plea bargains account for more than 90 percent of criminal convictions in U.S. district courts, leaving a much smaller pool of trial convictions to examine.
Because federal law requires cases be assigned to judges in rotation, the general mix of cases assigned to each judge in a specific courthouse should be roughly similar. If they are applying similar standards, then the sentences for similar crimes should be roughly the same.
The sentencing was examined by districts, because of regional differences in the makeup and seriousness of crimes between New York, Kansas, California and other locations.