PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The majority of defendants sentenced in federal court in Rhode Island receive sentences below federal recommendations, and such sentences are granted more frequently here than in other districts across the country, according to a Target 12 review of U.S. Sentencing Commission data.
Federal judges in Rhode Island issued sentences below the recommended guidelines 68 percent of the time in 2016, 76 percent of the time in 2015 and 66 percent of the time in 2014, according to the data. The national average those years hovered around 50 percent.
Of the 55 states and territories with federal courts, Rhode Island was second on the list for giving sentences below the recommended guideline in 2014, behind only California. In 2015 the state fell to 12th place, and it was 11th in 2016.
U.S. District Court in Rhode Island handled 90 criminal cases in 2016, the majority of which were drug-related crimes. Most of those sentenced – 77 of the 90 – were given some prison time.
Sentencing guidelines are determined by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and are aimed at setting uniform policy for defendants facing punishment for a crime in federal court. The commission weighs a number of factors to determine what sentence range to recommend, but while the recommendation must be considered by the judge, it is advisory only.
In an interview with Target 12, U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith said he considers a “constellation” of factors when determining what punishment is appropriate for the defendant standing before him.
“I think if you ask any judge who sits on a significant criminal docket, he or she would tell you that sentencing is the hardest thing that we do,” Smith said. “There is no question that it’s difficult and it’s emotionally taxing and it’s exhausting.”
Smith insisted, however, that the data from the sentencing commission does not indicate federal judges in Rhode Island are lenient. “I think it’s a variety of things,” he said.
Among the factors he cited are the types of criminal cases seen in other parts of the country, which Smith said can come with heavier punishments – including those that trigger automatic mandatory minimum sentences that require judges to hand down a certain amount of jail time.
“A number of those districts have very high levels of methamphetamine cases, and under the guidelines meth drives very high sentences,” Smith said. “We don’t get a lot of those cases here.”
He also points to a generational gap among judges, with older jurists having had more time on the bench before a landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision made sentencing guidelines advisory-only. Prior to that ruling, judges were required to sentence a defendant within the guideline range.
“All the judges appointed by the Obama administration have grown up, so to speak, in a non-mandatory guideline environment [and] they never knew what it was like to sentence in a mandatory guideline era,” Smith said. “So those judges I think probably feel freer in exercising discretion.”
Rhode Island also has a unique deferment program aimed at getting young offenders facing drug charges on the right path by dangling the carrot of avoiding prison time. The program – managed by Smith and U.S. District Judge John McConnell – was launched last year and allows eligible offenders with relatively clean records to be spared incarceration by agreeing to heightened supervision and other mandates.
“We have about nine or 10 young men in that program and given the size of our caseload, that is almost 10 percent of our caseload,” Smith said. “That’s going to affect our statistics.”
Former U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha, who served as Rhode Island’s top federal prosecutor until earlier this year, said he did hear occasional grumbling from law enforcement if a sentence wound up being lighter than an investigator had hoped.
“Rhode Island’s judges … really took an individualized approach to sentencing, and really took to heart this notion that they did not want to sentence someone to prison for longer than it was necessary,” Neronha told Target 12. “I have a lot of confidence in the federal judges here – they are trying to do the right thing; the fact that we might disagree on a particular case was really not enough for me to lose a lot of sleep over.”
Smith said those disagreements during the sentencing process is how the criminal justice system was designed to work.
“We have an adversarial system, and that means people are going to disagree and the neutral decision-maker makes a decision,” Smith said. “I think I would be more upset if I thought everybody on one side was always happy with what I did – that would signal to me that maybe I was leaning a little too far in one direction or other.”
A seismic shift
Smith said the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States vs. Booker, which made U.S. Sentencing Commission guideline ranges advisory-only, “was one of the most significant decisions in constitutional law in say the last 40 to 50 years.”
“It was extremely freeing and I was happy about it, though I think it took me a few years for me to settle into it,” said Smith, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush.
Smith wasn’t alone. It took several years for the full impact of the Booker decision to take hold as cases worked their way through the federal judicial system.
In Rhode Island, statistics show judges sentenced defendants within – or above – the guideline range 87 percent of the time in 2004, the year before the Supreme Court decision. By 2011, that number had shrunk to 49 percent, and in 2016 it was 32 percent.
Smith acknowledged it was easier to issue a sentence when judges were required to stick to guidelines.
“[We were] just punching the buttons and handing out the sentence,” Smith said. “If someone is upset, it’s ‘go talk to Congress.'”
But, he added, “that’s not what we want because that’s not really doing justice.”
Smith said he has “an idea” of what a potential sentence will be before he enters the courtroom on sentencing day, based on information about the defendant prepared by probation officials. He also reads through letters sent to the court on behalf of or against the defendant. But the most important moment happens that day, when the defendant has an opportunity to address the court and the judge can hears from the individual himself.
“You sometimes have cases that involve really violent crimes, you have victims that have been hurt tremendously,” Smith said. “Our job is to absorb all of that and try to be as dispassionate as possible and rational and then administer justice as we see it.”
Tim White ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on FacebookJared Pliner contributed to this report