Wild swings in sentencing ill serves justice in America

Since the founding of this nation, equal justice for all under the law has stood as a tenet most Americans have cherished dearly.

Unfortunately, however, over the decades, that noble ideal has been tarnished and compromised.

Before the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, an apartheid system of criminal punishment in some parts of the nation encouraged harsher sentences for blacks than for whites guilty of identical transgressions.

For years, judicial discretion — leaving the ultimate sentencing decisions up to individual judges — had created a patchwork of vastly unequal punishments for equally severe crimes

Spurred by wide variations in sentences, Congress tried in 1984 to create more uniform outcomes with the Sentencing Reform Act.

That law set up a commission that wrote guidelines for judges to follow as they punished convicts, with similar sentences for offenders with comparable criminal histories convicted of similar crimes.

But the law’s requirement that judges stick to these sentencing guidelines was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005.


Seven years later, sentencing inequality remains abundantly clear.

A study released last month by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse concluded that federal judges are handing out widely disparate sentences for similar crimes.

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. Data for the study had to be pried out of a recalcitrant Justice Department with a Freedom of Information Act filing. The study took in 885 judges who collectively sentenced more than 370,000 defendants from 2007 to 2011.

The gaping discrepancies in punishment severity are painfully clear in the results for federal judges’ sentencing patterns in the Northern Ohio federal district.

In sentencings for similar drug crimes, prison time here ranged from a low of 37 months to a high of 77 months. Some judges in other districts ordered sentences of up to 160 months.

Clearly drug-crime sentences that swing that widely — 123 months or more than 10 years — for similar convicts should strike most fair-minded Americans as inherently wrong.

Criminal punishment should not amount to the luck of a draw for a defendant who might shave off a decade from a potential sentence by facing a lenient and cooperative judge.

Further review

Such disparities point to a need for further review, particularly by judicial associations and bar associations. Less stringent guidelines that could survive a Supreme Court challenge could be considered, enacted and implemented.

Of course, some level of judicial discretion should continue to remain in place. After all, despite similar charges, all cases are different, all details of the transgression are different and all defendants with or without criminal backgrounds are different. All of those differences should factor in a judge’s decision on prison time.

The goal should be to arrive at a judicious balance between ensuring a fair and reasonable pattern of punishment for similar crimes and safeguarding an appropriate dose of discretion for judges.

But as the new TRAC study proves, today that balance is way out of whack.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.