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Same Crime with a Different Sentence?

Over 30 years ago Legislators attempted to ensure that those convicted of a federal crime were given similar sentences. However, their efforts have not been successful. Sentencing data released by the Associated Press show that those convicted of the same crimes even in the same court house are receiving different sentences.

In 1984, the Sentencing Reform Act was passed in Congress. The Act implemented a commission that wrote sentencing guidelines for federal judges. These guidelines factored in past criminal history and the crime committed and gave a similar sentence to each individual convicted. What was revolutionary about the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act was that it required judges to follow the guidelines that came from the commission.

However, in 2005 the Supreme Court struck down the portion of the Act that requires judges to follow the guidelines. Although all judges use similar guidelines to place numerical values on the actions taken in the crime and past criminal history, each judge has the ability to deviate from the guidelines. Judges apply the facts of the crime to the law in all cases, but sentencing is one area in which they can individualize the punishment to the criminal.

Theories have risen concerning the reason behind this disparity in sentencing. Some feel that it is product of politics because federal judges are appointed. Therefore some feel that the sentences judges are imposing are in some way a product of their political affiliation.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse recently analyzed judicial sentencing across several districts, and found that there was no way to predict the sentencing doled out by an individual judge based on who was president when they were appointed.

In order to allow public information of sentencing TRAC will be releasing a data base that has sentencing information for federal judges from 2007 to 2011 that has been gathered following litigation seeking the information under the Freedom of Information Act. This data will be available to anyone willing to pay the subscription fee.

Source: Commercial Appeal, " Federal Sentences Still Vary Widely," by Nedra Pickler, Mar. 4, 2012.   

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