NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Judges Too Lenient?

December 11, 2003

The General Accounting Office (GAO) investigated the different federal circuits for leniency, which is defined as meting out sentences below the guidelines of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a practice known as "downward departures." After studying some 175,000 federal criminal sentences given nationwide from fiscal year 1999 to fiscal year 2001, the GAO found:

  • Downward departures occurred in 17 percent of all cases.
  • This is a substantial increase from 1991, when only 5.8 percent of cases had downward departures.
  • For example, the liberal Ninth Circuit was 19 times more likely to be lenient than the conservative Fourth Circuit.
  • Similarly, district judges in the Ninth Circuit used leniency in 47 percent of drug cases, compared with 4 percent in the Fourth Circuit.
  • Hispanic defendants were most likely to receive leniency - 23 percent did.
  • Blacks were least likely; only 8 percent received leniency.
  • The rate for white and "other" defendants was 13 percent.

Researchers, however, cautioned not to draw too hasty conclusions. The Ninth Circuit includes the Mexican border states of Arizona and California and has a disproportionate number of illegal defendants who receive lighter sentences so they can be deported more quickly.

Source: Gary Fields and Jess Bravin, "Federal Judges Aren't as Lenient as Lawmaker's Say," The Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2003.


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