U.S. district judges in Nevada most often impose sentences in cases involving a deported illegal immigrant who has illegally re-entered the country, statistics show.
For Judge Larry Hicks, illegal re-entry was the lead charge in more than 19 percent of the cases he handled during a recent five-year period. For two senior judges, Edward Reed Jr. and Lloyd George, that crime was the lead charge in more than 30 percent of the cases they handled. Senior judges have the option of carrying reduced caseloads.
Chief Judge Robert "Clive" Jones specifically said he wants his sentences in illegal re-entry cases to be as low as possible, except for the worst offenders.
"We don't need to have hundreds more illegal re-entrants in the prison system," he said. "We're already overcrowded in the federal prisons."
The data was compiled earlier this year by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization based at Syracuse University that examined the sentencing habits of 10 Nevada judges from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2011.
At the request of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the organization prepared a list of median sentences imposed by Nevada judges in immigration cases. It did not provide a list of sentencing variations for immigration cases within individual districts around the country.
The Nevada list showed that Senior Judge Howard McKibben, who sentenced 34 defendants in immigration cases, imposed the highest median sentence: 24 months.
Hicks, Senior Judge Roger Hunt and Brian Sandoval each had a median sentence of 21 months. Sandoval stepped down in September 2009 to run for governor.
George and another senior judge, Philip Pro, each had a median sentence of 19 months. Reed had a median sentence of 18 months, Senior Judge Kent Dawson had a median sentence of 17 months, and James Mahan had a median sentence of 15 months.
Jones, who sentenced the most defendants, 94, had a median sentence of 18.5 months.
Although not the toughest sentencer in immigration cases, Jones viewed his median sentence as too high.
"Hopefully I'm giving long sentences to those with a heavy and violent criminal background," the chief judge said.
Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney for Nevada, said his office always has targeted the "worst of the worst" in illegal re-entry cases.
McKibben said he respects the underlying principles of the federal sentencing guidelines and finds them helpful when choosing a penalty, which he views as one of the most difficult decisions for a judge.
"The guidelines are very important because they reflect the sentences that are imposed across the country for defendants similarly situated who have committed similar crimes," the judge said.
McKibben said he does not know whether his sentences typically fall within the guideline range.
"There are a lot of variables in all of this, and that makes it very difficult to do a comparative analysis," he said.
According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, nearly 62 percent of the sentences imposed by Nevada judges in fiscal 2011 fell within the guideline range.
Less than 2 percent went above.
The median sentence imposed in immigration cases that year was 26 months.
"I've always been a supporter of the sentencing guidelines, but I know there's a lot of judges that would beg to differ with me on that point," Bogden said.
In the 1990s, U.S. attorney's offices and the Justice Department developed early disposition, or "fast-track," programs to handle increasingly large numbers of criminal immigration cases arising along the country's southwestern border.
Some other districts later sought and received authorization to implement fast-track programs, raising concerns that defendants were being treated differently depending on where they were prosecuted.
In light of these concerns, the Justice Department required all districts prosecuting felony illegal re-entry cases to implement a fast-track program by March 1 of this year.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Brenda Weksler said it's too early to tell how the program's recent implementation in Nevada will affect the state's sentencing statistics.
Weksler said defendants who qualify for the program have 30 days from the first day they appear in court to tell prosecutors whether they want to participate.
They won't qualify if they've been kicked out of the country too many times, or if they have an extensive criminal history.
Defendants who decide to participate agree to plead guilty and waive all rights to appeal. In exchange, prosecutors agree to request reduced sentences.
Weksler estimated that 60 percent of the illegal re-entry cases in Southern Nevada qualify for the program.
Typical reductions in those cases range from six to 16 months, she said.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.