Same crime, different time

One of the founding principles of our justice system is that every person should be equal under the law. One important way that this maxim is supposed to apply to our federal criminal courts is that people convicted of a similar crime under similar circumstances, should receive similar sentences. But according to a recent study, there are still wide disparities in the sentences handed down by judges.

In an attempt to mitigate these disparities, the federal government enacted the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984. This law created a commission to develop sentencing guidelines to make sentencing more uniform. But the guidelines also proved problematic, removing judge’s discretion to take certain mitigating factors into account. There were also concerns that some sentences, such as those for crack cocaine, were much harsher than similar charges for powder cocaine. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines did not bind judges and that they could depart from the guidelines in individual cases.

A news article on this new study appearing on the CBS Atlanta website notes a surprising fact revealed in this data. Conventional wisdom suggests that those judges appointed by Republicans might be more “tough on crime” than the judges appointed by Democrats. But the appointees from both parties were equally represented among the judges that hand down the harshest sentences.

The study did not provide a definitive answer to why some suspects may receive longer sentences than other similarly situated suspects. But one insight we can certainly take away from this study is that a thorough and vigorous criminal defense is more important than ever in an environment where the length of potential sentences depend on the judge’s consideration of each individual case.

Source: CBS Atlanta, “AP Enterprise: Federal sentences still vary widely,” Nedra Pickler, March 4, 2012