Monday, March 5, 2012

Weakening of Federal Sentence Guidelines has Impact

The federal judicial system was plagued by a wild disparity in sentencing across federal circuits during the early 1980s.  In response, Congress tried to create more uniform outcomes with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. 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, reported the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the sentencing guidelines. 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, according to the Commercial-Appeal.

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, despite any impressions that Republicans or Democrats may be tougher or softer on crime.

According to the Commercial-Appeal, 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.

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, reported the Commercial-Appeal.

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