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March 4, 2012

New TRAC federal sentencing data (with judge identifiers!) highlights post-Booker variations

A potential blockbuster new set of federal sentencing data is emerging this coming week thanks to the folks at TRAC, as first reported in this new AP article headlined "Federal sentences still vary widely." Here are excerpts from this first report on a story which I suspect will garner lots of attention (and posts) in the coming days and weeks:

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....

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.

There is so much of political and practical importance to this story and the data that TRAC has assembled (and I have placed the important data backstory in bold because it merits extra attention).

Most fundamentally, the data TRAC have assembled involve, to my knowledge, the first major compilation of federal sentencing outcomes with specific information about which judges imposed what sentences.  For that reason (and many others), I suspect a lot of folks (myself included) will be looking to buy this valuable data from TRAC and will be eager to figure out (a) how accurately it is assmebled and reported, and (b) how best to utilize this important new data for various purposes. 

Wowsa!  And stay tuned federal sentencing fans...

March 4, 2012 at 10:48 AM | Permalink


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"...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."

I have argued that political affiliation or views, not even personal experience of being a crime victims will never overcome lawyer rent seeking. Prime example, the leadership of Scalia in overturning mandatory guidelines, the greatest lawyer achievement of reducing crime 40%.

Rent seeking predicts this Supreme Court, or one even more conservative if a Republican President is elected, will support gay marriage. Why? Family is moribund. Only a self-defeating idiot would get married today. And the lawyer needs the additional business of the extremely high divorce rate among gays. Being gay does not make one stupid, and gays will get married even less often than stupid hets. Why is the lawyer of even the most conservative background trying to destroy family formation? The family competes with government for authority. And bastards generate massive social pathologies that require massive numbers of worthless government make work jobs.

That is the power of the rent seeking theory. It explains and predicts all anomalous lawyer behaviors.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 4, 2012 6:06:49 PM

This information, as presented, is absurd. How can you compare all drug cases together without controlling for drug type and quantity? And note that most of these numbers discussed will include very few cases, since they only include cases that went to trial.

That anyone would present the information like this is very, very disappointing.

Posted by: Anon | Mar 4, 2012 7:03:14 PM

"It explains and predicts all anomalous lawyer behaviors."

Does it? I suspect judges can be more complex than that.

Posted by: Lee | Mar 4, 2012 9:10:18 PM

And the lawyer needs the additional business of the extremely high divorce rate among gays.

Posted by: Pandora | Mar 4, 2012 10:22:41 PM

Lee: Sit in any local NJ traffic court. Every two minutes, another defendant, especially if represented, admits to careless driving, no points, $400, no matter what the original infraction. That goes on for 4 hours a day. If you demand a trial, progressive greater pressure is exerted, until you are surrounded by four thugs with hands on pistol handles, putting their hands on you. You get the message, and plead to guess what, careless driving, no points, $400. If you are an illegal alien, sitting in jail, taking up a bed, generating costs but having no funds, the same judge throws out the charges unsolicited. None of this is taught in law school, criminal law. Traffic law touches the most people of any criminal law subject. What is your explanation other than rent seeking?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 4, 2012 11:05:50 PM

Pan: You bet. Gays have no desire to get married, except for some rare freak lesbians. The whole issue is a lawyer invention. After a short time, almost none will show up for marriage licenses.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 4, 2012 11:08:30 PM

Professor Berman,

I subscribed this morning to the complete TRAC data set. The data is extensive and should provide academics with a great resource. However, the Sentencing Commission data would be more detailed. The cat, as they say, is now out of the bag. There is no longer any reason for the Sentencing Commission not to release judge-specific data.

Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge

Posted by: Richard Kopf | Mar 5, 2012 8:58:55 AM

Making this information is important - it shines a light on a bit of data previously with held. I haven't looked at TRAC for five years - I will not.

Posted by: beth | Mar 5, 2012 12:45:53 PM

Judge Kopf nails it again. Judicial independence should be highly valued. So should judicial accountability. Let's get more refinement from the Sentencing Commission.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 5, 2012 12:50:03 PM

It is not clear from this article whether their data set can be controlled for items like criminal history, minor role and 5Ks. I'm all in favor of data and sunshine, but I hope this won't lead to misleading comparisons. The Commission should release more info, because, presumably, they have the most complete data set, sortable by all of these factors.

Posted by: defendergirl | Mar 5, 2012 1:26:51 PM

bill, you're characterization begs the question "what is accountability?" it is entirely possible that every one of these sentences was justifiable and would be thought correct by a majority of people who had time to sift through the facts and circumstances of the case. or it is possible that they would all be thought wrong by such a group. or, more likely, it is possible that some would be thought wrong and some would be thought correct. where in that last and most likely category does "accountability" lie? what are the standards? i don't think they can be the guidelines. the guidelines, with their cookie-cutter approach, and in my district at least, their upward adjustments that became rote and thus failed utterly to distinguish one offender from another, pretended to an objectivity that they did not have and it is doubtful they could have ever obtained. the current post-booker guided discretion system is flawed, but i think it works better than both the pre-guideline entriely open discretion system and the rigid guideline system, whose primary flaw may have been the inescapable fact that the commission became an interested party sure that it, and it alone, could know best.

Posted by: big bad wolf | Mar 5, 2012 2:11:21 PM

big bad wolf --

"bill, you're characterization begs the question 'what is accountability?'"

Then I'll be happy to define it. Accountability, in this context, means each judge being willing to have his/her specific sentencing record readily available for the public to evaluate, and being willing voluntarily to be questioned about it by Congress and/or the USSC. Indeed it seem to me that Congress would be well within its rights to require the Sentencing Commission to publish detailed info about the sentencing practices of named, individual judges.

Many of us would like to know who is giving much more than the average number of downward departures, and much more than the average of upward ones. It might be, as you suggest, that Judge X's wide differences with so many of his colleagues have a perfectly good factual basis -- but maybe not, too. The info should be available to at least ask the question, wouldn't you think?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 5, 2012 5:32:11 PM

have to give bill this one. I agree. Plus like the govt uses every day with the all the new criminal registries. All they are doing is showing INFORMATION that is and should be PUBLICLY AVAILABLE in a easier to use format!

that court case has been taken all the way to the USSC and those who wanted to hide it LOST!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 5, 2012 5:36:27 PM

I must have been asleep for my last post. I haven't looked at TRAC for some years, but I will certainly be interested in this. This information should be public. We need to know what we pay for and how it happens. Data in and of itself does not tell the story, but information that has been previously denied being disclosed is a step forward.

Posted by: beth | Mar 5, 2012 9:18:34 PM

'The database, available to anyone who pays $65 a month for a TRAC subscription...'

This should be accessible and free of cost to anyone seeking this information since it was probably funded at least partially by public grants anyway.

Posted by: lax | Mar 6, 2012 2:01:17 PM

Interesting! I have been looking for this info for the last few hours.

Posted by: CNY mud run | Jan 1, 2013 1:16:28 AM

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