By NEDRA PICKLER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A new study shows that federal judges are handing out widely disparate sentences for similar crimes 30 years after Congress tried to create fairer results, but the differences don't line up with the party of the president who appointed the judges, despite any impressions that Republicans or Democrats may be tougher or softer on crime.
Sentencing data from the past five years that was analyzed for The Associated Press by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse during this presidential election year show that sentences for the same types of crimes vary significantly between judges in the same courthouse. But the party of the president who picked a judge is not a good predictor of whether a judge will be tough or lenient on a defendant found guilty at trial.
The analysis showed the judges who meted out the harshest average sentences after trials for three of the most common types of crime — drugs, weapons and white-collar charges — were split evenly between the two parties, based on which president appointed them.
In the 10 court districts with the most drug case sentences after trial, Republican-appointed judges assigned stiffer average sentences in five districts, but Democratic appointees gave longer penalties in the other five. In weapons cases as well, the longest average sentences were issued by Democratic appointees in five districts and by Republican-appointed judges in the other five.
For white-collar crimes, only seven districts had at least 20 trials for judges from each party over the past five years, and the split was Democratic-appointees tougher in four and Republican ones in three.
Spurred by wide variations in sentences, Congress tried in 1984 to create more uniform outcomes with the Sentencing Reform Act. The law set up a commission that wrote guidelines for judges to follow as they punished convicts, with similar sentences for offenders with comparable criminal histories convicted of the same crimes.
But law's requirement that judges stick to these sentencing guidelines was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. Judges still must calculate the guidelines, with numerical values given for factors such as the seriousness of the offense and the defendant's criminal record. But the judges are not bound by the result. They have complete discretion on how much time each defendant convicted at trial in their courtroom should receive — or if they should be imprisoned at all — subject to appellate review.
Russell Wheeler, an expert on federal courts, said after the Supreme Court made the guidelines optional, many observers expected that judges still would use them out of habit and tradition, and because they can shield the judges from too much disparity.
"Perhaps that view has worn off now and they are back to fashioning sentences that are more individualistic," said Wheeler, the former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center who teaches law at American University.
"I think judges try to be bound by the facts, bound by the jury and bound by the law," he said. "Sentencing is the one area where the law doesn't constrain them very much."
The sentencing disparities can be vast, but the study shows they are not partisan.
For example, defendants convicted in a drug trial in the Southern District of California got an average sentence of 17 years before Republican-appointed judges, compared with six years before Democratic counterparts. But a weapons conviction after trial in the Eastern District of Michigan resulted in an average sentence of 21 years before the Democratic-appointed judges and an average of less than 12 from the Republican ones.
Those figures come from TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University that uses the Freedom of Information Act to collect data about federal law enforcement activities.
On Monday, TRAC planned to launch the first publicly available database of sentencing records, sortable by judge, after a 15-year struggle to get records from a reluctant Justice Department. The center has filed FOIA lawsuits against the department four times, dating to 1998, and combined the hundreds of thousands of records it ultimately obtained with information directly from the federal courts to produce the database.