Prison Sentencing Patterns for Drug Offenses in U.S. District Courts
(13 Sep 2023) Detailed data on federal sentencing, updated through June 2023, found the median length of prison sentences for federal drug crimes was 60 months (or 5 years). However, sentence length varied greatly depending upon the federal courthouse and the judge handling the case. Federal district court judges in San Diego had the widest variation in their median or typical prison sentences. There one judge assigned a median prison sentence of 13 months during the five-year study period, while a colleague on the same bench gave a median prison sentence of 77.5 months.

In contrast, judge-to-judge typical drug sentences at the federal courthouses in Arizona (Tucson), Connecticut (Bridgeport), and Alabama (Mobile) were quite similar. All five judges in Tucson had medians within a 6-month range. In Bridgeport, Connecticut the range was 8.5 months and in Mobile, Alabama, 10 months separated the lowest median sentencer from the highest.

Geography and population size impacted drug caseloads too. Federal district court judges working out of the courthouse located in Salt Lake City, a mid-size city by population in the United States, sentenced over a thousand drug offenders -- far more than the number of sentences during the same period dispensed in courthouses located in Chicago (441) or Houston (279), two of the most populated cities in the country.

In general, many districts without large urban centers have higher federal drug prosecutions relative to their population size than districts with large metropolitan centers. The ten districts with the highest level of federal drug convictions per capita during the first nine months of FY 2023 included North Dakota, both the Southern and Northern District of West Virginia, Alaska, Montana, Eastern and Western Tennessee, New Mexico, and Nebraska.

Often the same drug offense can be prosecuted at the local, state, or federal level. Referrals to the feds to prosecute can occur because local authorities consider their statutes don’t impose a high enough penalty compared to what is available under federal provisions, or because law enforcement offices there feel they don’t possess the resources needed.

These findings are based on a detailed analysis of an accessible research database which TRAC compiles tracking federal sentencing records for each federal district court judge. Detailed reports on each judge have also just been updated through June 2023 and can be found at TRAC’s Judge Information Center.

Specific findings on each of 40 large federal courthouses along with examples of specific judge prison sentences are found in the full report.

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