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March 5, 2012

"Surprising Judge-to-Judge Variations Documented In Federal Sentencing"

As previously "previewed" in this post, today the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (aka TRAC) has released important new data and a report concerning federal sentencing practices in recent years.  This TRAC report, which carries the same title as this post, is now available at this link, and it gets started this way:

An analysis of more than 370,000 cases completed in the nation's federal courts during the last five years has documented extensive and hard-to-explain differences in the sentencing practices by the judges working in many federal districts.

This first-of-its-kind, judge-by-judge review by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of federal sentences imposed for drugs, white collar and other kinds of crimes from FY 2007 to FY 2011 indicates that the typical sentence handed down by a federal district court judge can be very different than the typical sentences handed down for similar cases by other judges in that same district. This finding raises questions about the extent to which federal sentences are influenced by the particular judge who was assigned to decide it rather than just the specific facts and circumstances of that case.

Caution. A key requirement for achieving justice is that the judges in a court system have sufficient discretion to consider the totality of circumstances in deciding that a sentence in a specific case is "just." No set of rules, including the federal sentencing guidelines, can substitute for this necessary flexibility.

But a fair court system also requires "equal justice" under the law. This means that the average or typical sentences of the judges will not be widely different for similar kinds of cases. So the goal of systematically examining sentences is not to develop a lockstep sentencing system. Rather, the goal is to provide both the courts and the public with accurate information so that they can examine whether justice is being achieved.

There is a whole lot here to consume and discuss in this TRAC report, and I hope to discuss what I see as soon as I get back from my afternoon class and have time to consume it.

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March 5, 2012 at 03:52 PM | Permalink


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This report badly needed a statistician. Even given random assignments to judges, one would assume some cases have mostly negative factors for sentencing and others mostly positive factors. Given the sample sizes, I'd find it a bit surprising if all these were within random fluctuation; but without some idea of the variation within judges, it is difficult to tell how many of these should really be disturbing.

Posted by: Chester Palmer | Mar 5, 2012 8:24:12 PM

"This means that the average or typical sentences of the judges will not be widely different for similar kinds of cases."

That's a normative statement that is incorrect. It doesn't make any sense to equate equality with averages or typical cases. I'm reminded by the old saw that an economist is a person who, when your feet is in the freezer and you head in the oven, on average you're doing OK. Apparently this disease has now spread to the law.

Posted by: justmeagain | Mar 6, 2012 1:00:00 AM

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