Lawyers often tell their clients that if they’re found guilty the sentence they receive depends as much on the judge as on whatever guidelines might be in the judicial code.
Now a national study suggests the differences in sentencing practices among federal judges can be stark.
A new analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that prison terms handed down by judges in half the 155 federal courthouses across the country could differ by at least 23 months and, in some 66 of the courtrooms, by as much as four years or more.
The study of federal sentencing decisions between 2014-2018 was prompted by questions following the disparate sentences given former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in two different federal district courts.
On Aug. 21, Manafort was convicted of eight counts related to tax fraud, bank fraud and failure to disclose a foreign bank account. On March 7, he was sentenced to 47 months in prison by Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III in federal court in Virginia—setting off a firestorm of complaints that he had gotten off relatively lightly for crimes that could have landed him up to 25 years behind bars.
TRAC’s analysis of court records in the Alexandria, Va, courthouse showed there was more than a 12-month difference among judges in the average prison sentences they handed down. Ellis’ sentencing record also showed that, when compared to his colleagues on the same bench, he tended to hand down longer prison terms — except in white collar cases, where Ellis awarded the lowest average among his colleagues.
In contrast, when Manafort appeared less than a week later before Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., he was sentenced to an additional 43 months for a total prison term of 7 1/2 years.
Berman, who described Manafort as a man who “spent a significant portion of his career gaming the system,” has an overall sentencing record much more typical of others on the same court, according to TRAC.
But it does appear that, had Manafort been sentenced by a different judge on the Washington federal bench, his sentence could have been quite different. Court records show that the average prison sentence between judges at that courthouse differed by 24 months, according to TRAC. (Because the Washington federal court adjudicates a smaller number of white-collar cases than the one in Alexandria, there is an insufficient number of cases to compare sentencing patterns on just white collar crimes.)
Even Harsher Disparities
The study found even harsher examples of sentencing disparities elsewhere in the nation.
The Orlando courthouse in the Middle District of Florida, with seven judges, had a range of over 80 months between the judge with the shortest versus the longest average prison sentence. This was followed by the Greenbelt courthouse in Maryland, with over 64 months’ difference among the seven judges serving there.
“A key requirement for achieving justice is that the judges in a court system have sufficient discretion to consider the totality of circumstances in deciding that a sentence in a specific case is ‘just,’ ” TRAC said in an earlier study of judge-to-judge variations in individual sentencing. “No set of rules, including the federal sentencing guidelines, can substitute for this necessary flexibility.”
But, TRAC added, “a fair court system also requires ‘equal justice under the law’ [and] this means that the average or typical sentences of the judges will not be widely different for similar kinds of cases. ”
The statistics for each of the 155 federal courthouses included in the March 2019 study are available here.
This summary was prepared by TCR contributing editor Mark Obbie. Readers’ comments are welcome.