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March 25, 2007

County sentencing disparities in Michigan

The AP has this extended story on sentencing disparities in Michigan, entitled "Is Michigan justice unequal?: Prison sentences may depend on where defendants are convicted."  Here is a snippet:

A man convicted of breaking into a house in rural Hillsdale County often ends up in prison if the judge has the ability to send him there.  Doing the same thing 80 miles away in suburban Detroit would more likely get the convict jail time, probation or a lighter punishment.

Michigan's sentencing guidelines are meant to ensure that consistent sentences are handed out for similar crimes.  But when given a choice, judges in most smaller counties are sending certain offenders to prison at a higher rate than judges in larger counties, according to state Department of Corrections data.

March 25, 2007 at 04:05 PM | Permalink


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as if criminals are entitled to some cosmic fairness . . . .

don't break into people's houses and then you won't have to worry about it

i'm guessing that the homeowners in the rural counties appreciate that the judges are sending a message . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Mar 25, 2007 4:40:50 PM

At some level, individuals convicted of the same crime under the same circumstances are entitled to be treated the same. You seem to be proposing a kind of judicial activism, wherein judges in one part of a jurisdiction don’t even other to ascertain the will of the legislature, whereas judges in other jurisdictions do. Either you think that “the law” is some sort of squishy thing in which judges “feel” how much the hapless defendant should get, or one of them must be right and one must be wrong.

If you were a lawyer this would be a pretty interesting topic for debate.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 25, 2007 11:04:06 PM


And how would such entitlement be enforced?

The will of the legislature? What are you talking about? The will of the legislature is to give judges discretion within a range of sentencing possibility, which necessarily means that there could be different outcomes in similar cases. Did you miss the day in law school where they talked about discretion?

Posted by: federalist | Mar 26, 2007 12:11:02 AM

Federalist, Yes, I did miss the day in law school where they talked about “discretion.” Strangely, it isn’t taught. But you missed all of law school (as you admit). Personally, I don’t know how one can sleep at night knowing that other people went to law school.

“Discretion” itself is a difficult concept, because it means different things to different people. Most of the time, “abuse of discretion” refers to appellate review of mixed questions of “facts” and “law” in which the factual determinations are accorded some degrees of deference, and legal ones are not. Of course, where the line between “fact” and “law” lies varies. So, in most cases, the word “discretion” simply requires some factual determinations by the lower court.

You asked how it would be enforced. The same way other legal matters are “enforced.” Via appellate review – and rigorous appellate review. But, unfortunately, because some the rural individuals may be waiving their rights to seek appellate review (or not seeking it in the first place), they are simply not able to obtain it.

Even in states with sets of aggravating and mitigating factors, it isn’t hard to argue that a mitigating factor or aggravating factor was or was not present. The judge simply needs to make such a finding on the record. When such findings are made on the record, the argument goes, sentences conform to a fixed point.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 26, 2007 8:29:58 AM

I practice in Michigan. I don't find the disparity surprising. Some probation officers, prosecutors, and judges, want to score the guidelines as harshly as possible under the guidelines, instead of interpreting the guidelines in a common-sense manner. That scoring lengthens the possible minimum sentence. Then defendants who fall into "straddle cell" ranges, where a state prison sentence is possible, but not required, often get state prison sentences. That puts the cost of incarceration onto the state's budget.
A probationary sentence, with local county jail time as a part of it, would have the cost of incarceration fall entirely on the county where the judge and the prosecutor are elected. In Michigan, most counties suffer from shrinking financial resources, and many have overcrowded local jails. Thus, "straddle cell" defendants go to prison.
Overall, the "straddle cell" prison rate is 40%, or more. When the guidelines came out, the state estimated that figure would be about 20%. Michigan incarcerates at a far higher rate than any other state in the region, and the state government can't afford the costs, either. There is a move afoot to revise the guidelines, to make it harder to imprison so many people. The prospects of passage are uncertain.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Mar 26, 2007 3:19:38 PM

The judges are sensitive to local viewpoints which
can vary from county to county in a judicial district. I am not surprised to learn that a judge in a mostly rural county is more likely to use incarceration that a judge in a mostly urban county. It could be the same judge.

Rural residents tend to be intolerant of criminal activity because they are more vulnerable even though the risk is small.

Posted by: john neff | Mar 26, 2007 5:40:34 PM

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