A new study shows that federal judges are handing out widely disparate sentences for similar crimes 30 years after Congress tried to create fairer results, but the differences don't line up with the party of the president who appointed the judges, despite any impressions that Republicans or Democrats may be tougher or softer on crime.
The analysis showed the judges who meted out the harshest average sentences after trials for three of the most common types of crime - drugs, weapons and white-collar charges - were split evenly between the two parties, based on which president appointed them.
In the 10 court districts with the most drug case sentences after trial, Republican-appointed judges assigned stiffer average sentences in five districts, but Democratic appointees gave longer penalties in the other five. In weapons cases as well, the longest average sentences were issued by Democratic appointees in five districts and by Republican-appointed judges in the other five.
For white-collar crimes, only seven districts had at least 20 trials for judges from each party over the past five years, and the split was Democratic-appointees tougher in four and Republican ones in three.
Spurred by wide variations in sentences, Congress tried in 1984 to create more uniform outcomes with the Sentencing Reform Act. The 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 the same crimes.
But law's requirement that judges stick to these sentencing guidelines was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. Judges still must calculate the guidelines, with numerical values given for factors such as the seriousness of the offense and the defendant's criminal record. But the judges are not bound by the result. They have complete discretion on how much time each defendant convicted at trial in their courtroom should receive - or if they should be imprisoned at all - subject to appellate review.