|(30 Sep 2021)
The changed makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and the influence of recent appointments on the outcome of cases the Court hears has been the focus of a great deal of recent public attention. It should not be surprising that the identity of a judge can impact decision outcome from the Supreme Court all the way down to trial court sentencing decisions.
Using case-by-case, judge-by-judge, data updated through December 2020, a new analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University identifies federal courthouses where wide judge-to-judge sentencing differences currently occur, and courthouses where there is wide agreement in sentencing among judges.
While judges need sufficient discretion to consider the totality of circumstances in assigning a sentence in a specific case to ensure it is "just," a fair court system always seeks to provide equal justice under the law, working to ensure that sentencing patterns of judges are not widely different for similar kinds of cases.
While special circumstances might account for some of these differences, half of the courthouses in the country had median differences in prison sentences of 16 months or more, and average differences of 21 months or more. Five courthouses showed more than 60 months difference in the median prison sentence handed out across judges serving on the same bench.
In contrast, seven federal courthouses out of 159 compared had perfect agreement among judges in the typical or median sentences assigned. In an additional thirty, judge-to-judge sentences differed by six months or less.
This study largely replicates the findings from TRAC's first national judge-by-judge examination of the differences among federal judges in sentencing practices that was published almost a decade ago. TRAC compared judge decisions within each courthouse to take advantage of the broad institutional promise that criminal cases there are assigned to judges on a random basis. Just as this methodology based upon random assignment is the gold standard for determining whether a new vaccine or the adoption of new medical procedures have any real impact on patient outcomes, in a similar fashion this methodology provides the most reliable method for isolating the influence of a particular judge's sentencing philosophy from the impact of the multitude of other factors impacting sentence outcome.
TRAC is making available extensive new sentencing data through our TRAC Fellows program to other scholars to encourage in-depth examinations of what gives rise to these differences, as well as how and why sentencing practices change over time at a courthouse.
Research also needs the informed insights of those who know first-hand the inner workings of our federal trial courts—judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and others intimately involved in the work of delivering justice on a day-to-day basis. To assist in this dialogue, TRAC has complied individual reports on 873 U.S. District Court judges and these are also available.
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