(CN) - Federal judges are assigned vastly different criminal caseloads across the nation, sometimes even in the same courthouse, according to a Syracuse University study that found one judge sentenced an average of more than 1,000 defendants a month for six years.
The sole federal judge in Las Cruces, N.M., Robert C. Brack, sentenced all 7,020 defendants processed by the court during the study period of October 2006 to July this year, according to the report .
The McAllen courthouse in South Texas had the second-heaviest workload for federal judges, with an average of 5,467 defendants sentenced for each of the three active judges serving there.
The Midland courthouse in West Texas ranked third, with 4,810 defendants sentenced by Judge Robert A. Junell, the sole federal judge there.
The busiest 11 courthouses were all in Southwest border states. These included El Paso, Del Rio, Brownsville, Tucson, San Diego, Austin, Waco and San Antonio.
"While apprehensions along the Southwest border haven't grown - indeed they generally have been falling for a decade or more - the onslaught of criminal immigration prosecutions that have engulfed federal district courts has occurred as a result of a policy shift to increase criminal prosecutions for illegal entry rather than use civil and administration procedures to remove and sanction individuals found to have illegally entered the U.S.," the researchers said.
Courts with the highest disparities in criminal caseloads were Los Angeles; Beaumont, Texas; Camden, N.J.; and Manhattan and Brooklyn, N.Y.
Those with the smallest variation in criminal caseload were Brownsville and El Paso, Texas; Providence, R.I.; Concord, N.H.; and Norfolk, Va.
The study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, also known as TRAC, at Syracuse University, identified 18 courthouses where the heaviest sentencing load was nearly 1.5 times larger than that at the courts with the smallest sentencing load.
The study found an overwhelming proportion of criminal defendants pleaded guilty. In this study period, for example, less than 4 percent of convictions for the nation as a whole were decided by a judge or jury after a court trial.
While the large number of guilty pleas no doubt reduces the time requirements for handling these criminal caseloads, the sheer volume of defendants dealt with by individual judges is nonetheless astounding, the researchers said.
The clearinghouse uses the Freedom of Information Act to collect criminal justice data, and this year unveiled a publicly accessible database of sentencing records of more than 400,000 defendants, sortable by judge.
The study is the first example released of an applied use of the database, which is sure now to become a favorite of computer-assisted journalists.
The authors began by looking at criminal caseloads of 909 federal judges for the past 70 months. However, because about half of those judges were not active throughout the 70-month study period, the sample was parsed to the 430 judges that were active throughout.
Researchers then measured workload by sentencings for these judges (who preside at 179 courthouses across the country), and excluded acquittals, which the authors concluded were rare.
In 90 courthouses, the presence of multiple judges allowed for comparison of the variation in caseloads within the courthouse.
Among these, there were four courthouses where the criminal caseload for one or more of the judges was twice the caseload of their colleague(s).
Across the country, the data show that each judge sentenced an average of 615 defendants during the study period.
Across all 90 courthouses, the average difference in criminal caseloads among judges was 29 percent, and the median or typical difference was 18 percent.
Given the large number of defendants usually handled by each judge, such differences were unlikely to have arisen from chance variations in case assignments, the authors said.
To understand how criminal cases are assigned, TRAC then reached out to clerks in a sample of districts.
While not all of the clerks contacted agreed to participate, those that did uniformly indicated that while judges were randomly assigned by the court's computerized software system, adjustments were allowed in the "odds of selection" when directed by the chief judge in a district (or sometimes by an individual judge), the researchers said.
For example, if a retired (senior) judge wanted to handle about half the criminal caseload of active judges, the computer selection could be adjusted so that the odds that a case would be randomly assigned to that judge would be set at one half.
Cases were still randomly assigned, TRAC was told, but the senior judge's turn would come up half as often. Such a system also could adjust the criminal caseloads for active judges without apparently altering the random nature of case assignments.
There was also enormous variation in the volume of criminal cases a judge was required to handle, depending upon the courthouse at which the judge served.
While on average active judges sentenced 615 defendants during the study period, this average caseload level varied from a low of 147 criminal defendants in the District of Columbia to a high of 7,020 in the Las Cruces, N.M. district courthouse.
TRAC's comparison of caseloads between regions confirmed that courthouses on the Southwest border had by far the highest number of sentences due to the federal government's sharply increased emphasis on criminal enforcement of immigration matters.
However, Southwest border courthouses weren't the only ones with unusually heavy criminal caseloads per active judge.
Cedar Rapids in the Northern District of Iowa was ranked 12th out of the 90 courthouses compared. Judge Linda R. Reade - the sole judge there -handled a larger caseload (1,383) than the average caseload for judges in Phoenix (1,366).
A number of other courthouses not in districts along the southwest border made the list of courthouses with the heaviest average criminal caseloads per judge.
These included Buffalo, N.Y. Salt Lake City, New Bern, N.C., Sioux City, Iowa, and Greeneville, Tenn.
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