Sentencing Disparities in Bay Area Counties

Rabin Nabizadeh
February 11, 2019

Major sentencing disparities can occur in different Bay Area Counties. What a judge sentences an individual to in one county could be vastly different than from what a judge sentences an individual to in another county. The differences in sentencing have a vast monetary effect on both county and California state resources.

Whatever affects county and state resources invariably affects taxpayers. It costs more to incarcerate an individual in California than it does in any other state.

How does this happen? How can two counties in the same area providesentencing disparities for the same crime?


Two Identical Crime Defendants – Two Different Sentences

Before getting into reasons for why sentencing discrepancies happen, see below for how sentencing discrepancies can occur.


Sentencing Discrepancy #1

35-year-old Female Accused of Embezzling $300,000 from Her Employer

A more lenient county in the Bay Area like San Francisco or Alameda, might sentence the guilty party to 3 years in prison. The harsher county might sentence the individual to 10-years in prison.


Sentencing Discrepancy #2

A 40-Year-Old Male Accused for Driving Under the Influence

Sentencing for DUI’s can vary wildly depending on where the infraction allegedly occurs. Some counties, like Alameda, might only sentence the individual to 2-days in jail after a plea bargain. Other counties like Marin could sentence the individual to 12-days in jail after a plea bargain.

Reasons Why Sentencing Disparities Exist


Sentences change from county to county depending on a single all important factor: all 58 California counties from the top of the state to the bottom are allowed to tailor their criminal justice systems around county norms and philosophies.

To put it another way, every county in California can create their own judicial belief system. This autonomy is why sentencing disparities exist. Four factors drive county judicial belief systems:


Driver Factor #1:

Political Ideology

Just like everywhere in the United States, counties in the Bay Area have different political ideologies. Some counties like San Francisco lean towards the left. Other counties like Marin lead towards the right.

The direction a county leans in determines their sentencing philosophy. Counties that lean more towards liberalism are less likely to provide harsh sentences. Counties that lean more towards conservatism are less likely to provide lenient sentences.


Driver Factor #2:

Lack of Legislative Guidelines

Trial judges in the United States have no legislative guidelines for which to confer. The only guidelines available are county and state laws that provide a wide range of sentencing options. Without real national guidelines, political ideology becomes even more enforced.


Driver Factor #3:

Sentencing Subjectivity

Judges think subjectively. One only needs to see the rancor in the U.S. Supreme Court nominations process to know how true this is. If judges were objective, politics wouldn’t matter when choosing judges. There’s an argument that the law requires judges to be subjective.

But, although the law might require judges to be subjective, without objectivity, sentencing disparities invariably occur. Judges are independent individuals whose subjective nature causes sentencing disparities.


Driver Factor #4:

Individual Trial Judges

Judges subjectively sentence individuals. This causes sentencing discrepancies. What makes trial judges different from county to county in the Bay Area, and throughout the United States?

Penal philosophies – Different judges think differently about incarceration.
Judicial personalities – All judges don’t think the same about their jobs. Some judges believe they should be activist judges. Others wish to interpret laws down to the letter.

Social background – Where a judge comes from can have a major affect on how the judge sentences. Judges who ran and continue to run in certain social circles will often view the law the same way as their friends and family.
This isn’t a good or bad thing. It does explain why sentencing discrepancies occur.

Temperament – A judge’s temperament can most definitely account for sentencing discrepancies. Temperament is defined as a person’s nature. Soft temperament judges are more likely to provide lenient sentences while hard temperament judges are more likely to provide harsh sentences.


Factors that Don’t Account for Sentencing Discrepancies


Although there are several factors that account for sentencing discrepancies; there are a couple of factors that don’t account for discrepancies. The main two factors are county size and arrest rates.

County Size and Arrest Rates

The largest county in the Bay Area, San Francisco County, and one of the smallest counties in the Bay Area, San Joaquin County, have nearly identical felony and arrest rates.

It doesn’t matter that San Francisco County is 46.87 square miles and that San Joaquin County is 1,426 square miles. Although arrest rates were identical, this didn’t change the sentencing disparities. In 2012, arrested felons in San Joaquin were five times more likely to go to state prison.


No Factors: Arrest Rates, Estimated Population, Imprisonment
Rates, and Crime Rates


No correlation exists among arrest rates, estimated population, and imprisonment rates. Contra Costa County’s estimated population is 1,138,645. They imprisoned 404 individuals from 1,090 arrests. Marin County’s estimated population is 261,532. In Marin County, they imprisoned 512 from 682 arrests.
Crime rates also don’t affect sentencing disparities. A low-imprisonment county like Alameda, who reported 4,266 crimes in 2016, only incarcerated 568 individuals. Santa Clara County reported 2,498 crimes in 2016. They incarcerated 817 individuals.


California Taxpayers Foot the Incarceration Bill


Although sentencing disparities exist, all California taxpayers foot the bill no matter where disparities might occur. It costs California taxpayers $75,000 to house each prisoner each year. Whether the individual is imprisoned in San Francisco County, Marin County, or Santa Clara County, all California citizens pay for the prisoner’s incarceration.

Reasons exist for why sentencing discrepancies occur in Bay Area Counties. Political ideology, lack of nation wide legislative guidelines, sentencing subjectivity, and individual trial judges all contribute to those discrepancies. What doesn’t contribute to the discrepancies are county size, arrest rates, estimated population, and imprisonment rates. Furthermore, even though sentencing disparities exist, all California taxpayers foot the bill to pay for prisoner incarceration.

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