Judicial system sentencing in the criminal district courts in Harris County



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Most participants in the criminal judicial process have had notions of diversities between the sentencing behavior of judges for many years. Within the last half century, there have been a handful of statistical studies which have verified that notion at least for the time and jurisdiction studied. In general, these structured inquiries into the degree of sentencing disparities have not dealt at length with the possible causes for the diverse sentencing norms between the courts. They have, instead, assumed that the findings of their studies were the result of differences in the judges' backgrounds, attitudes, and psychological biases. This study is centered around three general propositions which attempt to establish not only the existence of but also the causes for sentencing disparities between the ten Texas criminal district courts in Harris County. In order to prevent variations within a court due to time lapse, the period studied was limited to six months in 1970. Within this timespan, five categories of crime were of sufficient size in each court to allow statistical examinations to be made. Driving while intoxicated--second offense, burglary, forgery, robbery, and theft cases were analyzed and compared as to: (1) the percentage of penal sentences versus probation sentences of first and single offenders; (2) the average length of penal sentences (severity) of first and single offenders; (3) the average length of probated sentences of first offenders (probation is generally available to first offenders only); and (4) the average length of penal sentences of multiple offenders. These statistical evaluations supported the first general proposition: that sentencing disparities do exist between the criminal district courts in Harris County. The second and third propositions of the study attempted to establish the sources of the sentencing deviations which were found to exist. First, several characteristics of the judges' backgrounds, training, and attitudes were ranked and compared with the sentencing rankings of the judges in an attempt to establish correlations between elements within the judges' characteristics and their sentencing records. Only a very few attributes of the judges had any significance in relation to the court' sentencing records. It was discovered in the course of the statistical study, however, that about ninety per cent of the convictions in Harris County are the result of plea bargains between the assistant district attorney assigned to a particular case and the defense attorney. The third proposition was that the sentencing disparities which were found to exist could be better explained by examining the interpersonal relationships between the district attorney, the defense attorney, and the judge. Statistically founded evidence was limited on this point, but there was strong subjective evidence that the attitudes and interrelations of the judicial participants are able to account for a much greater percentage of a court's sentencing record than are the characteristics of the judges considered alone. A series of interviews revealed the principal elements of plea negotiated sentencing, and from these findings recommendations could be made which would improve the criminal judicial process.



Criminal district courts, Harris County, Judicial system, Sentencing