In the United States, the public has a constitutional right to access criminal trial proceedings. In practice, it can be difficult or impossible for the public to exercise this right. We present JUSTFAIR: JUdicial System Transparency for Fairness through Archived/Inferred Records, a database of criminal sentencing decisions. In phase I of this project, we have compiled this data specifically in relation to Federal district courts from public sources, including the United States Sentencing Commission, the Federal Judicial Center, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, and Wikipedia. With over 570,000 records from the years 2001 – 2018, JUSTFAIR is the first large scale, free, public database that links information about defendants and their demographic characteristics with information about their crimes, their sentences, and, crucially, the identity of the sentencing judge.
Utilizing a plethora of controls, these results will ensure that underlying variables such as the defendant’s education level or age are not responsible for the statistically significant differences found in sentencing outcomes. That is, this analysis will support initial findings which identified judges with significant sentencing outcome disparities across the race of defendants, isolating racial bias as the most likely cause for these trends.
We are now in the process of fundraising for phase II of this initiative, which includes two major elements:
- Automating the data collection and processing to keep the Federal archives up-to-date and usable into the future; and
- Looking to state-level data collection, curation, and analysis to expand JUSTFAIR to look at state-level sentencing
The extension to the state-level poses new challenges as instead of working with a single Federal criminal justice system, we will now be working with 50 different state criminal justice systems. Subtleties vary across states; in particular, some states do not possess state level sentencing guidelines. Considering that the use of Federal level guidelines was part of the methodology for phase I, this methodology will have to be adapted for phase II.
At the same time, the state-level data are particularly germane because state judges are often elected officials; creating greater transparency can lead to greater equity and accountability if judges are found to be highly-biased in their sentencing decisions.