Putting TRAC to Work
  News Organizations
ABA Journal
March 7, 2012

Tool Available to Law Firms Compares Judge-by-Judge Sentencing Patterns
By Terry Carter

A report unveiled Monday based on a massive new interactive database that looks at criminal sentences rendered judge-by-judge throughout the federal judiciary quickly attracted perhaps as much criticism as praise, but the surest and biggest result is this: The genie is out of the bottle. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse's tool compares sentencing patterns judge by judge, district by district, the New York Times reported. And Monday's report indicates that typical sentences can vary widely in the same courthouse, as well as among districts, for similar crimes. TRAC also highlighted white-collar crime sentences by eight judges in the Northern District of Illinois, where median sentences by one judge came in at zero, compared to a high of 39 months by another. The database offers interactive analyses of sentences in more than 370,000 cases over the past five years. The report was authored by TRAC co-director David Burnham, a former New York Times investigative reporter best known for breaking the Serpico stories on corruption in the New York City Police Department and his books criticizing the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service. The data analysis was done by co-director Susan Long, a professor of managerial statistics at Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management. Burnham expects the new judge database to be used as much by lawyers in the trenches as by scholars. “Criminal defense lawyers often go by word-of-mouth in the courthouse to know what to expect from particular judges,” Burnham says. “But a judge might be so personable as to be seen as easygoing, and the gossip gets it wrong. The data doesn’t.” Burnham argues that the disparities in sentencing within some courts and among some districts, though not problematic throughout the country, brings into question the administration of equal justice under law. But, ironically, the tempest stirred up by TRAC’s research and new database might re-energize efforts to return to some version of mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
Copyright 2012
TRAC TRAC at Work TRAC TRAC at Work News Organizations News Organizations