Every case is different, but most will agree that fairness in sentencing requires some degree of uniformity. However, the study shows wild differences in the type and length of sentences from one county to another and, worse, from one judge to another within a county. The study is aptly titled "The Scales of Justice or a Roulette Wheel?" I am wondering if this may result in a new push for uniform sentencing standards or guidelines in Wisconsin.
The Gannett study mined sentencing data for various crimes from "CCAP" (the online automated circuit court access program) at https://wcca.wicourts.gov/index.xsl This allowed the authors to compare sentences for various categories of crimes, and sentencing judges, in a manner that appears to be highly objective and accurate.
Defendant's in Wisconsin criminal cases have an opportunity to substitute the judge assigned to their case. See Wis. Stat. s. § 971.20. As the study reveals, such is the disparity in the length of sentence from one judge to another in some counties, that it would seem to be blatant malpractice to not substitute the harsher sentencing judge. Of course, then you also have to know--with some certainty--which judge will inherit the case, lest the client go 'from the frying pan to the fire.' The process of judicial assignment is usually not random. As is the case at the La Crosse County Circuit Court, the courts are allowed to assign a case to the next most substituted judge(s) in order to "equalize" the caseload.
I always take care to closely analyze the likely-assigned judge, and likely-substituted judge. This is information a client must have to make an intelligent decision on whether to substitute a judge or not. Many times, in cases I take over from other lawyers, this important issue was overlooked altogether.
With cases that I know have the potential for prison, I have in the past commissioned my own sentencing study, using a similar mechanism used by the authors of the study, to determine the range of sentences for certain crimes in Wisconsin. It provides an objective basis to keep judges focused on fairness. The hope is to eliminate the subjective resources--such as the so-called "Pre-Sentencing Investigation" ("PSI") reports often relied upon now by Wisconsin judges. These reports, in my opinion, are often hastily prepared, rarely have much "investigation" underlying them, and are merely one corrections officer's "gut" opinion on what should happen in a case. These reports are given far too much weight, and they inject even more randomness into an already unpredictable process.
Of course, I most always know what to expect in the La Crosse County, Trempealeau County, Buffalo County, Vernon County, Monroe County, and Crawford County courts. But when the case is in a Wisconsin county that I do not practice in a lot, I talk to the lawyers in that county, and reach out to local attorneys on a "list serve" for input on the judge(s). Now, however, I will first be looking at the Gannett study.