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March 5, 2012

Trying to unpack the new federal sentencing data from TRAC

As reported in prior posts here and here, the folks at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (aka TRAC) have assembled important new data on federal sentencing outcomes which includes information (linked here, but requiring a subscription) on sentencing outcomes for nearly every federal judge over the last five years.  The New York Times has this new article about the TRAC data, which is headlined "Wide Sentencing Disparity Found Among US Judges," and highlights some more of the backstory concerning why the new TRAC data is so notable:

The trove of data subjects individual district court judges to a level of scrutiny unprecedented in the history of the judiciary....

Until the release of the data on Monday, it was difficult to review a judge’s sentencing history over time, because public court records in criminal cases could not be searched by the names of judges, only by the names of criminal defendants or lawyers.

In addition, the United States Sentencing Commission excludes the name of the judge from its sentencing data, in part, experts said, because of the judiciary’s concern that such data could be used to single out judges, who were freed from restrictive sentencing guidelines in 2005.

The new data were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, an organization based at Syracuse University that gathers data on the federal government.

The study covered each sentence imposed by federal district court judges in the past five years, for drug, white-collar and other kinds of crimes. Judges who had not sentenced at least 50 defendants were excluded, resulting in a pool of 885 judges who cumulatively had sentenced more than 370,000 defendants.

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.

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March 5, 2012 at 11:28 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Although the apparent lack of controls for highly relevant variables does, like you say, Prof. B., make the data less valuable, I still think it will be valuable for comparing judges within the same district (or, where even districts are divided into divisions, within the same division). After all, judges within the same district (or division) should see roughly the same percentage of 5K's, fast-track variances, mandatory minimums, etc.

Posted by: reg reader | Mar 6, 2012 4:05:58 PM

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