Federal Sentences Vary Widely, But Are Not Politically Biased

David Lindsey, Attorney at Law

By David Lindsey Attorney of David Lindsey, Attorney at Law posted in Federal Sentencing Law on Wednesday, March 14, 2012.

In federal sentencing law news, the Associated Press reports that federal judges are handing out a wide range of sentences for similar crimes, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of sentencing records; the study shows that the judge’s political party doesn’t uniformly dictate those differences.


A study commissioned by the AP analyzed sentencing data from the last five years; sentences for the same types of crime often vary substantially between judges in the same courthouse. The study showed that the judges who hand out the harshest sentences for the three most common types of crime – drugs, weapons, and white-collar charges – are evenly split between the two parties, depending on which president appointed them.

In an effort to avoid these disparities in sentencing, Congress passed the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act; a commission was formed to establish guidelines for judges to follow as then handed out punishment, using comparable criminal history and other factors to make the sentences more uniform. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the law’s requirement that judges adhere to these guidelines; judges must still calculate the guidelines using numeric values for factors like the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s record. But judges are in no way forced to hand down a sentence based on the results of this calculus. A federal judge has total discretion over the length of the sentence, or whether the defendant should be imprisoned at all.

“I think judges try to be bound by the facts, bound by the jury and bound by the law,” says federal court expert Russell Wheeler. “Sentencing is the one area where the law doesn’t constrain them very much.”

The TRAC plans to make this sentencing data available to the public, so that criminal defense attorneys will no longer have to rely on anecdotal information about a specific judge handling their case. TRAC co-director David Burnham is a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, whose articles on police corruption in the ’70’s inspired the Al Pacino film “Serpico”. Burnham feels strongly that defendants should have access to this information.

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