WASHINGTON — 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.
In the 10 court districts with the most drug case sentences after trial, Republican-appointed judges assigned stiffer average sentences in five districts, but Democratic appointees gave longer penalties in the other five. In weapons cases as well, the longest average sentences were issued by Democratic appointees in five districts and by Republican-appointed judges in the other five.
For white-collar crimes, only seven districts had at least 20 trials for judges from each party over the past five years, and the split was Democratic-appointees tougher in four and Republican ones in three.
Spurred by wide variations in sentences, Congress tried in 1984 to create more uniform outcomes with the Sentencing Reform Act. The law set up a commission that wrote guidelines for judges to follow as they punished convicts, with similar sentences for offenders with comparable criminal histories convicted of the same crimes.
But law’s requirement that judges stick to these sentencing guidelines was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. Judges still must calculate the guidelines, with numerical values given for factors such as the seriousness of the offense and the defendant’s criminal record. But the judges are not bound by the result. They have complete discretion on how much time each defendant convicted at trial in their courtroom should receive — or if they should be imprisoned at all — subject to appellate review.
Russell Wheeler, an expert on federal courts, said after the Supreme Court made the guidelines optional, many observers expected that judges still would use them out of habit and tradition, and because they can shield the judges from too much disparity.
“Perhaps that view has worn off now and they are back to fashioning sentences that are more individualistic,” said Wheeler, the former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center who teaches law at American University.
“I think judges try to be bound by the facts, bound by the jury and bound by the law,” he said. “Sentencing is the one area where the law doesn’t constrain them very much.”
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 launched 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.
“Criminal defense attorneys, for example, have long relied on anecdotal, sometimes gossipy information to advise their clients about the judge who is handling their case,” said Burnham, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times whose articles on police corruption in the 1970s inspired the movie “Serpico,” starring Al Pacino. “Every defendant should be able to have access to reliable information.”
With the White House election looming, the AP asked TRAC to look at sentence length by the party of the president who appointed the judge to see if the White House race might have an impact on criminal sentences. The AP asked to restrict these comparisons to punishments imposed after a trial to eliminate the outsized influence that prosecutors have on the sentences imposed as a result of plea bargain deals with defendants. In those bargains, a defendant usually pleads guilty in exchange for prosecutors’ agreeing to an often reduced sentence range that judges almost always adhere to. Plea bargains account for more than 90 percent of criminal convictions in U.S. district courts, leaving a much smaller pool of trial convictions to examine.
Because federal law requires cases be assigned to judges in rotation, the general mix of cases assigned to each judge in a specific courthouse should be roughly similar. If they are applying similar standards, then the sentences for similar crimes should be roughly the same.
The sentencing was examined by districts, because of regional differences in the makeup and seriousness of crimes between New York, Kansas, California and other locations.
About the study
Methodology for TRAC’s research and AP analysis
The data and an interactive judge tool were developed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University over 15 years of research. Data were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in a series of four lawsuits against the Justice Department, and then combined with information obtained directly from the federal courts. The data cover sentences imposed during the past five budget years, 2007-2011.
In a special analysis conducted by TRAC at the request of The Associated Press, judges were divided into those appointed by Republican versus Democratic presidents to compute their average sentences after trials.
Sentences imposed after guilty pleas without trial were excluded, even though they constitute more than 90 percent of convictions in federal courts. That was because these are usually the result of plea bargains between defendants and prosecutors for reduced sentences over which prosecutors exercise outsized influence compared to judges, who almost always accept these deals.
Separate analyses were carried out for three most common types of charges — drug, weapons, and white collar. The top 10 districts represent those with the most trials by judges appointed by each party.
In the case of white-collar crime cases, a smaller number of trials left only seven districts that met a minimum standard of at least 20 trials for judges appointed from each party.
In computing these averages, prison terms were capped at 100 years to avoid the undue influence of an extreme sentence. A value of zero was used for sentences in which no prison time was imposed and life sentences were valued at 100 years.
TRAC’s overall database includes all judges who sentenced at least 50 defendants over the past 5 years, whether after trial or plea. This included 882 judges appointed by presidents from John Kennedy through Barack Obama — 355 appointed by Democratic presidents and 527 by Republicans. During that time, more than 370,000 defendants were sentenced by these judges, for an average of 420 defendants sentenced per judge over the five years.
Average federal prison sentences
After U.S. District Court criminal trials, covering the 2007-2011 budget years, by party of president who appointed the judge.
U.S. Judicial Avg. Sentence (months)
District Democrat Republican
Puerto Rico 404 228
South Carolina 360 306
Virginia West 177 296
Pennsylvania East 279 258
Illinois North 276 192
Florida South 266 245
Florida Middle 220 243
Texas South 131 208
California South 74 206
New York South 159 179
South Carolina 320 354
MARYLAND 245 271
Florida Middle 266 171
Pennsylvania East 222 263
Florida South 258 234
Michigan East 253 142
Missouri East 249 226
Virginia East 222 232
Tennessee West 162 205
Missouri West 181 104
Texas North 99 65
Florida South 62 73
New York East 73 69
Illinois North 53 69
New York South 61 57
California Central 52 43
Florida Middle 48 50
Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse analysis done for The Associated Press