Boots & Sabers

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1910, 29 Nov 15

Disparate Justice

Gannett has an excellent bit of journalism examining disparities in sentencing in Wisconsin. Here’s a part:

The idea that “similarly situated” persons should be treated similarly is a foundational tenet of the American legal system, but Wisconsin falls far short of that standard, our study found.

We examined 12 of the most frequent felony offenses from 2005 to 2014, chosen for their relative lack of extenuating circumstances with input from dozens of attorneys, judges and law professors.

The inequalities were striking across all 12 offenses. Get a speeding ticket anywhere in Wisconsin, and — unless you’re in a jurisdiction with a municipal court — the fine will be identical. But get convicted of a felony, and your penalty is at the whim of the sentencing judge.

A conviction for second-plus offense marijuana possession meant an average of 10 months behind bars from Milwaukee County Judge William Brash, but six other judges around the state averaged less than a month for that crime.

Five- and six-time drunken drivers before Judge Dee Dyer in Outagamie County were sent away for an average of 25 months in prison, but sentences in Bolgert’s courtroom averaged less than 10 months.

Similar divergences cropped up even between judges in the same county. Brown, Fond du Lac and Outagamie counties each had a gap of 10 months between average sentences handed down by the harshest and lightest judges on the serial drunken driving offense.

The analysis included a total of 140 judges statewide, 98 of whom currently are on the bench. To be included, judges had to sentence at least 10 offenders in five of the 12 felony categories to ensure a large enough sample size that one extreme sentence couldn’t unduly alter the ranking.

Read the whole thing. One thing that I really like about the study is that they name names. For instance:

The analysis identified Milwaukee County Judge Carl Ashley as the state’s most lenient active judge, followed by Sheboygan County’s Bolgert and Milwaukee County Judge Glenn Yamahiro. The three harshest sentencers were Milwaukee County judges Daniel Konkol and Rebecca Dallet, and Marinette County Judge David Miron.

Remember that Wisconsin’s judges are elected. The voters have a choice in kicking judges they don’t like out of office, but far too often then run unopposed and/or the people know nothing about their records. Given how much power individual judges have over the lives of the people in front of them, it is a travesty that they are not subject to more scrutiny.

This is a real quandary for lawmakers. On the one hand, lawmakers could pass very detailed and specific legislation mandating certain sentences for certain crimes, but that would prevent judges from exercising any JUDGEment other than how they run the trial.

On the other hand, leaving judges so much latitude in sentencing is clearly leaving citizens at the mercy of the whims of individual judges. Arbitrary justice is no justice at all.

On the other hand (as Tevya would say), is this a problem at all? If the voters are OK with such disparity in judicial rulings as the judges’ reelections would seem to indicate, why should the legislature overrule the will of the voters as expressed through their electoral choices?

Makes one think…


1910, 29 November 2015

1 Comment

  1. old baldy

    Odd that Judge Dyer would be so strict. He was the guy in college that couldn’t keep a drivers license due to casual observance of the law. Otherwise a great guy.

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