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Study reveals widespread inconsistencies in federal sentences

Anyone accused of a crime in Sacramento, or anywhere in the country, receives a promise to be treated fairly under the law. A defendant is innocent of a crime until proven, beyond any doubt, that they are guilty. Yet if someone is found to be guilty, they should receive a sentence that matches the magnitude and circumstances of their supposed actions. Unfortunately, when being prosecuted for federal crimes, those accused do not always receive fair or consistent sentences.

A sweeping study of federal sentences has revealed that there are significant and troubling inconsistencies between the sentences individuals receive for committing similar crimes. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse analyzed public records from thousands of federal criminal trials and discovered that the severity of sentences varied significantly between various judges.

In one instance, the median sentence for drug crimes among 28 federal judges was 24 months. However, one judge's personal sentencing median was 12 months, yet another judge typically handed out sentences around 64 months for similar crimes. These vast sentencing disparities are not limited to one particular region of the country, but are spread throughout the United States. As it currently stands, sentencing guidelines are not mandates. As a result, judges have significant latitude in determining specific sentences.

One of the concerns relating to this study is that judges may overreact to criticisms that they are being too "lenient" on crime. In reacting to that sentiment, judges may respond by handing down unnecessarily stringent sentences in order to combat the perception that they are weak.

In the end, sentencing should always come back to the simple premise that punishments should match the nature and circumstances of a crime. A trustworthy criminal defense advocate will make sure you are treated fairly by the criminal justice system and do not receive a sentence that is unfairly harsh. At the same time, judges should be doing their part to ensure that there is some consistency in federal sentencing.

Source: The New York Times, "Wide Sentencing Disparity Found Among U.S. Judges," Mosi Secret, Mar. 5, 2012

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