|(21 Mar 2019)
The recent sentencing of Paul Manafort by federal judges in two different district courts has renewed interest in the sentencing practices of individual judges.
Countless studies over the years have documented a basic fact: while decisions should be determined by the law and the facts, in reality there is a third very important force at work. This ingredient is the identity of the judge assigned to a given case. Again and again, court records show that the particular predilections of individual judges influence the legal decisions that they reach, including those involving sentences.
The record of Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III who sentenced Manafort on March 7 contrasts somewhat with that of Judge Amy Berman Jackson who serves on the District of Columbia court and sentenced Manafort in a separate case on March 13, six days later. Court records further show that the sentencing patterns at the two courthouses also differ.
In a just completed study of judge sentencing differences at 155 federal courthouses across the country the judge with the lowest average prison sentence was compared with the judge with the highest average sentence at each courthouse. Based upon case-by-case sentencing records, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that half of federal judges served at courthouse where the average prison sentence differed by at least 23 months depending upon which judge handled the case. Sixty-six of these judges served at six courthouses where the average prison sentence length differed by more than 48 months.
The Orlando courthouse in the Middle District of Florida with seven judges had a range of over 80 months between the judge with the shortest versus the longest average prison sentence. This was followed by the Greenbelt courthouse in Maryland with over 64 months difference among the seven judges serving there.
The existence of judge-to-judge differences in sentences of course is not synonymous with finding unwarranted disparity in sentencing practices. A key requirement for achieving justice is that the judges in a court system have sufficient discretion to consider the totality of circumstances in deciding that a sentence in a specific case is just. No set of rules, including the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, can substitute for this necessary flexibility.
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.
To examine current sentencing differences at each of the 155 federal courthouses included in the study, read the full report at:
TRAC's Judge Information Center offers information on differences among judges in the number of criminal and civil cases that each handles and is publicly accessible at:
Specific comparisons on the sentencing practices of individual federal court judges as well as the speed with which they resolve civil matters before them are also available to subscribers to TRAC's information services.
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