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September 30, 2021

TRAC releases intriguing new report on "Equal Justice and Sentencing Practices Among Federal District Court Judges"

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University is a research center that keeps track of a lot of federal criminal case processing data. Today TRAC released this notable short data report under the title "Equal Justice and Sentencing Practices Among Federal District Court Judges." Here are snippets from the start and end of the report:

This report examines very recent data on federal trial judges and their sentencing practices. The existence of judge-to-judge differences in sentences of course is not synonymous with finding unwarranted sentencing disparity....  But a fair court system always seeks to provide equal justice under the law, working to ensure that sentencing patterns of judges not be widely different when they are handling similar kinds of cases.

In reality, sometimes the goal of equal justice under the law is achieved, and other times the actual sentences handed down depart markedly from this goal. Using case-by-case, judge-by-judge, data updated through December 2020, a new analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University identifies federal courthouses where wide judge-to-judge sentencing differences currently occur, and courthouses where there is wide agreement in sentencing among judges.

While special circumstances might account for some of these differences, half of the courthouses in the country had median differences in prison sentences of 16 months or more, and average differences of 21 months or more.

Results further showed that currently seven (7) federal courthouses out of 159 compared had perfect agreement among judges in the typical or median sentences assigned. In an additional thirty (30), judge-to-judge sentences differed by six months or less.... At the other extreme, five (5) courthouses showed more than 60 months difference in the median prison sentence handed out across judges serving on the same bench....

This study largely replicates the findings from TRAC's first national judge-by-judge examination of the differences among federal judges in sentencing practices that appeared in the Federal Sentencing Reporter. That study was published almost a decade ago. While it is true that some specific courthouses show greater agreement today, others show less agreement. Many of these changes appear to reflect changes in the judges currently serving there.

Yet answering the question of whether significant intra-judge differences in sentencing practices exist is not sufficient to establish that such differences are indeed unwarranted sentencing disparities. Much more research and a great deal more time is needed for a thorough examination of the actual details of judge-by-judge sentencing patterns.

September 30, 2021 at 10:29 PM | Permalink

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