Geography, Not Law, Is Determining Criminal Sentences, Breuer Warns
By Samuel Knight | November 15, 2011 4:37 pm

All too often, the length of a convict’s prison sentence is determined by where he or she committed the crime, rather than the severity of the incident, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer warned Tuesday.

Speaking at a National Law Journal Summit, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division said there are severe disparities in sentences based on geography. “The data show that the district in which a person is sentenced can have a huge impact on how much time he or she spends in prison,” Breuer said.  “For example, in fiscal year 2010, in the Southern and Western Districts of Texas, judges sentenced defendants to prison terms within the ranges prescribed by the guidelines approximately 71.5 percent of time.  At the same time, in the Southern District of New York, judges sentenced defendants to prison terms within guidelines ranges just 32.6 percent of the time.  In short, many prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges agree that more and more, the length of a defendant’s sentence depends primarily on the identity of the judge assigned to the case, and the district in which he or she is in.”

Breuer said that the disparities are particularly significant when it comes to financial fraud. “With increasing frequency, federal judges have been sentencing fraud offenders – especially offenders involved in high-loss fraud cases – inconsistently.  For example, a defendant in one district may be sentenced to one or two years in prison for causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, while a defendant in another district is sentenced to ten or 20 years in prison for causing much smaller losses.”

“We must work to end such baseless disparities,” Breuer said.

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