The database, available to anyone who pays $65 a month for a TRAC subscription, shows how many sentencings each federal judge has handled from the 2007-2011 budget years, the average sentence each issues and how long on average it takes the judge to dispose of a case. It compares each judge's figures with others in the same district and across the country, as well as the percentage of their cases by type of crime. That data could be useful to researchers or attorneys trying to gauge the odds their clients face with a particular judge.
TRAC co-director David Burnham said the data raises questions about the extent to which the goal of equal justice under the law is being served in some districts. He said TRAC doggedly pursued the data because it's vital the public and the courts have evidence that could improve the justice system.
"Criminal defense attorneys, for example, have long relied on anecdotal, sometimes gossipy information to advise their clients about the judge who is handling their case," said Burnham, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times whose articles on police corruption in the 1970s inspired the movie "Serpico," starring Al Pacino. "Every defendant should be able to have access to reliable information."
A striking difference jumps out on first glance at the database: The huge variation in workloads between judges.
Eleven judges in Southwest border states handled more than 800 cases on average a year, because of the large number of illegal immigrants captured in the region. All of the judges ranked in the top 25 for heaviest caseload are from Southwest border districts, led by U.S. District Judge Robert Brack in New Mexico with 6,331 sentencings over the five years and Judges George Kazen and Micaela Alvarez from the Southern District of Texas with more than 5,750 each.
The border judges have long complained that they are burdened with too many cases to give them proper consideration and instead have to resort to a type of assembly line sentencing to get them through the system. The national average is fewer than 100 sentencings a year per judge, counting both sentencings after trials and after guilty pleas, often in bargains with prosecutors.
With the White House election looming, the AP asked TRAC to look at sentence length by the party of the president who appointed the judge to see if the White House race might have an impact on criminal sentences. The AP asked to restrict these comparisons to punishments imposed after a trial to eliminate the outsized influence that prosecutors have on the sentences imposed as a result of plea bargain deals with defendants. In those bargains, a defendant usually pleads guilty in exchange for prosecutors' agreeing to an often reduced sentence range that judges almost always adhere to. Plea bargains account for more than 90 percent of criminal convictions in U.S. district courts, leaving a much smaller pool of trial convictions to examine.
Because federal law requires cases be assigned to judges in rotation, the general mix of cases assigned to each judge in a specific courthouse should be roughly similar. If they are applying similar standards, then the sentences for similar crimes should be roughly the same.
The sentencing was examined by districts, because of regional differences in the makeup and seriousness of crimes between New York, Kansas, California and other locations.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.