A new study shows that federal judges are issuing widely disparate sentences for similar crimes 30 years after Congress tried to create fairer results, the Associated Press reports. Sentencing data from the past five years analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse show that sentences for the same types of crimes vary significantly between judges in the same courthouse. The party of the president who picked a judge is not a good predictor of whether a judge will be tough or lenient.
Judges who meted out the harshest average sentences after trials for 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. Judges no longer are bound by sentencing guidelines. 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 Russell Wheeler, the former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center who teaches law at American University.