WASHINGTON -- Federal judges across the nation are shouldering criminal caseloads that vary widely in size, sometimes even among judges in the same courthouse, according to a new study.
The study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University found three courthouses where the judge with the largest criminal caseload had sentenced more than twice the number of defendants as the judge with the smallest caseload from October 2006 through July 2012. They were Los Angeles; Beaumont, Texas; and Camden, N.J.
Overall, the study found 18 courthouses where the heaviest sentencing load was at least 1.4 times larger than the smallest.
The study, release Sunday, was made possible because the clearinghouse, which uses the Freedom of Information Act to collect criminal justice data, earlier this year assembled the first publicly available database of sentencing records, sortable by judge.
Judges in the courthouses with the widest disparities cited unique local circumstances to explain the differences.
David Sellers, a spokesman for the administrative office of U.S. courts, said he wasn't surprised or concerned with these findings. He noted, however, that the judiciary needs more judges, particularly along the Southwest border.
That appeal for more judges was buttressed by another finding of the study that documented a more widely known disparity in criminal caseloads between districts in different regions. These regional differences are driven by the large number of immigration cases along the Southwest border where judges have long complained they handle too many cases to give each one proper consideration.
The clearinghouse study analyzed the criminal caseloads of 430 federal district judges who were all active for the entire study period, almost six years. It measured workload by sentencings and excluded acquittals because “acquittals are exceedingly rare,” said Susan Long, a co-director of TRAC and co-author of the report, along with former New York Times investigative reporter David Burnham, TRAC's other co-director.
Atop the list of districts with internal disparities were the two federal courthouses in Los Angeles. One judge there had sentenced 305 people, while another had sentenced 134.
George H. King, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, said he had not had an opportunity to review the study or its methodology and declined to comment. But officials in other jurisdictions with the widest disparities provided explanations.
Second in internal disparity was Beaumont, Texas, which has just two judges: Marcia A. Crone, who sentenced 1,288 people during the period, and Ron Clark, who sentenced around 618. Both judges called that divide a reflection of how they divide the work in other courthouses they must travel to as part of their responsibilities, with Clark handling more civil cases and Crone more criminal cases.
The third greatest internal disparity was in Camden, N.J. Jerome Simandle, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, said two of Camden's four judges took no part in many criminal cases early in their tenure because of their former jobs as prosecutors. They both joined the court in 2006, which was coincidentally the beginning of the study period.
In addition, experienced judges tend to get cases that are related to cases they are already working on, Simandle said. “So experienced judges tend to get more cases,” Simandle said.
TRAC contacted clerks in a sample of districts. The clerks who agreed to be interviewed “uniformly indicated that while judges were randomly assigned by the court's computerized software system, adjustments were allowed in the `odds of selection' when directed by the chief judge in a district (or sometimes by an individual judge),” the report stated.
TRAC's comparison of caseloads between regions confirmed that courthouses on the Southwest border had by far the highest number of sentences. Atop the list was the courthouse in Las Cruces, N.M., where Judge Robert C. Brack is the only district judge, with 7,020 defendants sentenced. The next four were other Texas courthouses in McAllen, Midland, El Paso and Del Rio. Each of the judges in those courthouses averaged more than 4,600 sentences. The 11 courthouses with the highest caseloads were all on the border, “because of the government's sharply increased emphasis on the criminal enforcement of immigration matters,” the report stated.
On the opposite end, the courthouse in the nation's capital had the lowest average number of criminal defendants sentenced per judge -- 147 over the nearly six years in the study.
“We have many more complex cases than most of the districts listed in the report,” said Washington's chief judge, Royce Lamberth. He noted that the court handles public corruption cases, white-collar cases and any prosecution for obstruction of Congress, which can be time-consuming. Just this year, the court tried former baseball pitcher Roger Clemens on charges of perjury, making false statements and obstructing Congress for denying he had used performance-enhancing drugs. A jury acquitted Clemens of all charges after a trial that lasted more than nine weeks.
“So comparing a case in which there's a one-hour, at most, guilty plea in an immigration violation, and probably one hour spent on sentencing, can't really compare to the kinds of cases we're doing,” Lamberth said
Sellers, spokesman for the office that provides administrative support to federal courts, said that differences in caseloads have “been a reality of judging -- not just in federal courts -- for more than two centuries.”
“I would liken this to a study that concludes that cars traveling on the same road, or different roads, travel at different speeds,” Sellers said.
That doesn't mean things can't be improved, he added. “There are courts that have tremendous needs for new judgeships, particularly on the Southwest border. There are longstanding judicial vacancies.” But the judiciary doesn't control the number of judges.
The report acknowledged that Congress, which funds the courts, and the executive branch, which brings prosecutions, both have a responsibility for helping to manage criminal caseloads.