World and Nation

Big sentencing disparity seen among US judges

A new analysis of hundreds of thousands of cases in federal courts has found vast disparities in the prison sentences handed down by judges presiding over similar cases, raising questions about the extent to which federal sentences are influenced by the particular judges rather than by the specific circumstances of the cases.

The trove of data subjects individual district court judges to a level of scrutiny unprecedented in the history of the judiciary.

In the Eastern District of New York, for example, the 28 judges in the study delivered a median sentence of 24 months for drug cases in the past five years. But there were disparities: Judges Jack B. Weinstein and Kiyo A. Matsumoto gave median drug sentences of 12 months, while the median drug sentence for Judge Arthur D. Spatt was 64 months.

The Eastern District ranked 17th among more than 80 districts in drug sentencing disparities.

Until the release of the data Monday, it was difficult to review a judge’s sentencing history over time, because public court records in criminal cases could not be searched by the names of judges, only by the names of criminal defendants or lawyers.

In addition, the U.S. Sentencing Commission excludes the name of the judge from its sentencing data, in part, experts said, because of the judiciary’s concern that such data could be used to single out judges, who were freed from restrictive sentencing guidelines in 2005.

The new data were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, an organization based at Syracuse University that gathers data on the federal government.

The study covered each sentence imposed by federal district court judges in the past five years, for drug, white-collar, and other kinds of crimes. Judges who had not sentenced at least 50 defendants were excluded, resulting in a pool of 885 judges who cumulatively had sentenced more than 370,000 defendants.

The Southern District of New York ranked eighth in white-collar sentencing disparity. Some judges, like John F. Keenan and Sidney H. Stein, sentenced most of their white-collar defendants to no time at all, while the typical sentence of another judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, was almost 23 months.

The report said that in the Northern District of Texas, the median prison sentence for convicted drug defendants from some judges was 60 months on the low end. A typical sentence for another judge was nearly three times longer, at 160 months.

Former federal judges and sentencing experts pointed to what they said were the limitations in analysis of the data and cautioned against quick conclusions.