Florida Federal Judges Inconsistent on Drug Sentences

​Judges in Florida's Northern and Middle districts have some of the widest variations in the country when it comes to sentencing folks on federal drug charges, according to new data from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a group affiliated with Syracuse University's law school.

The findings, based on a review of "sentences imposed by 885 judges in more than 370,000 cases" between 2007 and 2011, show that seven judges in Florida's Northern District doled out a median sentence of 120 months. However, average jail time imposed by the lowest sentencing judge was 51.5 months while average jail time from the highest sentencing judge was 136 months. 

The difference in averages is the fourth greatest of any district in the country. 

The data were analyzed on behalf of The Associated Press as a way of examining whether judges appointed by a specific political party were more prone to give out harsher sentences. But the AP concludes that "the party of the president who picked a judge is not a good predictor of whether a judge will be tough or lenient on a defendant found guilty at trial."

The AP goes on to explain:

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.

Even though there is limited access to the data, the few charts available for free provide an interesting glimpse into how wonky federal drug sentencing is, particularly in Florida.  

Judges in the state's Middle District handed out an average sentence of 82.5 months in more than 3,000 drug cases. The harshest judge averaged 120 months per sentence, while the easiest judge handed down 51 months on average. That disparity was the seventh greatest in the country. 

Meanwhile, judges in the Southern District - The Pulp's home turf - appear to be way easier on defendants than their northern counterparts. The average sentence in the more than 4,000 cases down here was just 60 months. The lowest average was 46 months and the highest was 87 months. 

David Markus, an attorney who knows a thing or two about federal drug cases, writes on his blog:

In my view, the old system in which sentences were driven by mandatory sentencing guidelines created by sentencing commissioners is much much worse than federal district judges evaluating the particular case and individual appearing before the court.  Cases are different.  Defendants are different.  Districts are different.  Sentences then must be individualized.  

There are a lot of flaws with these initial impressions of the data. Still, if you're planning on soon facing a judge and some drug charges in Florida, better hope you're in a Southern District courtroom. 

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Chris Sweeney