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Why do sentences differ?

There is a misconception that local courts have "hanging judges." This term applies in circumstances where judges will sentence individuals differently even though they are charged with similar crimes. There is almost always a reasonable explanation for sentence disparity, explained as follows:

Achieving perfect balance in sentencing is unrealistic; each case has a unique set of circumstances. There are countless factors and considerations that must be made for each case. To the public, it may appear that each defendant's case is similar; in reality, each has different obstacles. Judicial sentences in the courts are influenced by factors relating to a defendant's prior criminal history—the presence of mitigating circumstances, the victim, degree of violence, sophistication of the crime, and amount of damages. Additional factors internal to the court system include budget problems, overcrowding, and local sentencing preferences (Jesilow, Lecture Notes, Week 6).

Disparity in sentencing is found in cases where aggravating factors are considered as well as mitigating factors. Aggravating factors—such as the possession of a deadly weapon or habitual or repeat offenders—are significant when deciding whether to administer prison or probation (Wiseman and Connelly). For example, if a defendant has committed crimes indicating a propensity toward violence, a judge will lean toward sentencing the defendant to a longer sentence in the interest of protecting public safety. Alternatively, social and family variables may warrant a lesser sentence for a particular defendant (Jesilow, Lecture Notes, Week 6); mitigating factors—such as diminished capacity, passive participation, coercion, age, health, and inclination to reoffend—are likely to reduce the sentence of the defendant (18 U.S. Code §3592). Aggravating and mitigating factors are unseen by the public eye because it is unethical for the court to disclose the differences among defendants on a case-by-case basis. There are sentencing guidelines that the court refers to when deciding the sentence. These guidelines refer to a low-, middle-, and high-term sentence. An offender receives a low-term sentence as a result of mitigating factors, whereas a defendant who receives the high-term sentence will have some aggravating factors that were necessary for the judge to consider.

A judge has approximately one minute per defendant to resolve a case and, as such, has a tremendous burden in handling excessive caseloads. The ability to move a case quickly through the process is a vital skill. In "A Wake-up Call from the Plea-Bargain Trenches," Schulhofer explained that a judge is more likely to reward a guilty plea with a greatly reduced sentence (p. 140). The public does not see the inner workings of a courtroom workgroup (the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney) who collectively participate to deal with the large number of cases. A key factor in collaborative efforts of the court workgroup, is rewarding a defendant by accepting a plea-bargain agreement; this process helps address the overcrowding issue of a court (Jesilow, Lecture Notes, Week 6). Prior to felony sentencing, the probation department will prepare a presentence report. This report provides the court with valuable information regarding the defendant's social and criminal backgrounds. Therefore, prior to the defendant's sentence, the judge considers issues contained in the probation officer's report, input from the district attorney, the defense attorney, as well as the victim.

The idea of seeking justice is of the utmost importance to the court. Judges believe that consistency in sentencing is not as important as doing what is just. The court process allows judges to use discretion in sentencing within the statutory guidelines. This autonomy allows judges to properly evaluate each circumstance involving each defendant on a case by cases basis at sentencing in an effective manner (Jesilow, Lecture Notes, Week 6). Judges want to be fair about sentencing; the varying circumstances surrounding each case create sentence disparity. Although time is limited, there are resources and tools available to the courts that allow the judge to contemplate sentencing factors. These factors come together for justice to be served.

(Word count 619—citations omitted)

Works Cited

18 U.S.C. 3592 – Mitigating and Aggravating Factors to Be Considered in Determining Whether a Sentence of Death is Justified. US Government Printing Office, 3 Jan. 2002. Web. Access 11-14-2014.<>.

Jesilow, Paul. Lecture Notes on the Court, Week 6, 13 Nov. 2014.

Schulhofer, Stephen. "A Wake-Up Call From the Plea-Bargaining Trenches." Law & Social Inquiry 19.1 (1994): 134–144. Print.

Wiseman A., and Connelly M. "Judicial Discretion & Sentencing Outcomes: Incorporating Data from the Courtroom," Jun. 2008, Abstract. Print.