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September 28, 2021

USSC releases interesting (but problematic?) new JSIN platform providing data on sentencing patterns

Jason-voorhees-friday-the-13th_1I had heard rumors that the US Sentencing Commission was working on a new sentencing data tool for federal sentencing judges, and today the USSC unveiled here what it calls the Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN).  Here is how the USSC generally describes JSIN (which is called "jason" in the helpful video the USSC has on its site):  

The Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) platform is an online sentencing data resource specifically developed with the needs of judges in mind.  The platform provides quick and easy online access to sentencing data for similarly-situated defendants.  JSIN expands upon the Commission’s longstanding practice of providing sentencing data at the request of federal judges by making some of the data provided through these special requests more broadly and easily available....

JSIN provides cumulative data based on five years of sentencing data for offenders sentenced under the same primary guideline, and with the same Final Offense Level and Criminal History Category selected.  

This all sounds great and interesting, and JSIN seems relatively easy to navigate and quite useful until one notices these notable data choices spelled out in the FAQ provided by the USSC (with my emphasis added):

After excluding cases involving a §5K1.1 substantial assistance departure, JSIN next provides a comparison of the proportion of offenders sentenced to a term of imprisonment to those sentenced to a non-imprisonment sentence....

JSIN reports the average and median term of imprisonment imposed in months for cases in which a term of imprisonment was imposed. Probation sentences are excluded.

Though I am not a data maven, I can understand the general logic of excluding the 5K and probation cases from the JSIN data analysis. But, perhaps because I am not a data maven, I greatly fear that these data exclusion choices result in the JSIN platform being systematically skewed to report statistically higher average and median terms of imprisonment.  For example, if 94 imprisonment cases have an average prison term of, say, 50 months and 6 more cases were given probation, I think the true average sentence is 47 months, but JSIN is seemingly built to report an average of 50 months.  Though less predictable, I fear the exclusion of 5K cases also may create a kind of severity bias in the data reporting.

IN addition, I did not see any way to control for the application of mandatory minimum statutes, which also serve to skew judicial sentencing outcomes to be more severe.  If a case have a guideline range of 30 for a first offender, meaning a range of 97-121 months under the guidelines, but a 10-year mandatory minimum applies, the judge is duty-bound to impose a sentence of at least 120 months even if he might want to give 97 months or something a lot lower.  If that sentence of 120 months is treated in the averages like every other sentence, it looks like the judge wanted to give the top of the guideline range even though he gave the lowest sentence allowed by law.  In other words, without controlling for the distorting impact of mandatory minimums, these averages may not really reflect judicial assessments of truly justified sentencing outcomes but rather averages skewed upward by mandatory minimums.

I am not eager to beat up on the USSC for creating a helpful and easy-to-use data tool and for making this tool accessible to everyone online.  And I am hopeful that the exclusions and mandatory minimum echoes may only impact the data runs in relatively few cases and only a small amount.  But even if the impact is limited, I think it quite worrisome if this JSIN tool has a built-in and systemic "severity biases" due to its data choices.  If it does, when hear about JSIN, I am not going to imagine the heroic Jason Bourne, but rather the nightmarish Jason Voorhees.

September 28, 2021 at 06:43 PM | Permalink


Can't randy teenagers be left in peace instead of pieces?

[dramatic music plays]

Posted by: Joe | Sep 28, 2021 7:52:20 PM

Texas executed someone today so guess all executions won't be held up until SCOTUS decides the religious liberty dispute involving one death row inmate.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 28, 2021 8:44:28 PM

Thanks for capital update, Joe, will blog soon.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 28, 2021 10:14:16 PM

Not surprising that the USSC makes data choices that favor the government. The Commission has been stacked with pro-government judges and of course, DOJ has an ex-officio member on the inside where criminal defendants are on the outside.

Posted by: whatever | Sep 29, 2021 11:08:47 AM

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