Many judges say the act of balancing whether to send someone to jail -- and for how long -- is the toughest part of the job. For nearly 20 years, federal judges were required to follow specific guidelines at sentencing. That changed in 2005. Tonight, new research shows there can be big differences in how long criminals are behind bars, even if they have committed the same crime.
Ty Warner, the 69-year-old billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, plead guilty to one count of tax evasion. He was sentenced last month to two years' probation. Peter Troost, the 79-year-old owner of Troost Memorials in Skokie, plead guilty to one count of tax evasion. He was sentenced to a year in prison. Both admitted hiding money from the internal revenue service in Swiss bank accounts. Both paid large penalties.
Why did Warner receive a more lenient sentence?
"In the old days it was really the guidelines that dictated the sentence. Now, the sentencing guidelines are only one of several factors that judges have to consider," said ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer.
Before sentencing, Warner gave U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras about 70 letters of support explaining his charitable acts.
Veteran defense attorney Mike Monico did not represent Warner, but agrees with Judge Kocoras' sentence.
"I thought his sentence was brilliant. He went over very carefully over Ty Warner's background and his history with charitable events and so forth, and so it made sense, the sentencing made sense," said Monico.
According to this U.S. Sentencing Commission report, 88 percent of people who commit federal crimes receive some prison time.
The number of inmates in federal prisons has more than doubled from about 100,000 in 1996, to more than 200,000 in 2011.
"We in America have so many people in jail, we have more people in jail than every other country in the world. So, I think it makes sense that this pendulum is swinging back toward more reasonable sentences," said Monico.
Research out of the University of Chicago Law School says "inter-judge sentencing disparities have doubled since the guidelines became advisory" and not mandatory.
This report by a Syracuse University research group lists Chicago as number one on the list of cities with the largest white-collar crime sentencing disparities, and number two for drug sentencing disparities.
Paul Hofer worked for the U.S. Sentencing Commission for 10 years and now works with the federal public defender's office.
"Some judges still feel very bound by the guidelines and follow them more often than others, so that can contribute to some disparity among judges today," said Hofer.
Despite the reported disparities, many believe defendants are receiving more appropriate sentences.
"I think by and large you're getting fairer sentences but the trick is what is fair in one case can be very different than what is fair in another. It can be hard to compare," said Soffer.
Interview requests to Mr. Troost, Judge Charles Kocoras and Judge John Tharp were all turned down. The Department of Justice is appealing Ty Warner's sentence.