Friday, July 3, 2015

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

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Just in time for the July 4th holiday, the Eleventh Circuit has given us some wise words from American literary hero Mark Twain (a/k/a Samuel Clemens), who makes not one but two appearances in United States v. Rosales-Bruno. The case concerns application of the federal sentencing guidelines to a defendant who was convicted of illegally reentering the country.

Despite base sentencing guidelines of between 0 and 6 months, the trial court deviated from the guidelines and handed down an 87-month sentence. The dissent argues that the district courts in the Eleventh Circuit have become increasingly likely to deviate upward from the guidelines under the belief that the Eleventh Circuit will affirm upward deviations but carefully scrutinize downward deviations. 

In his opinion, Judge Carnes analyzes the data and concludes that, in recent years, the district courts actually have imposed 11 times more downward deviations than upward deviations. In dismissing the dissent's concerns, Judge Carnes quotes Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: "How empty is theory in presence of fact!"  

According to the dissenting Judge Wilson, however, Judge Carnes' data might not prove what Judge Carnes believes it proves. Judge Wilson notes that accurate data can be manipulated and quotes Twain, who once said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Happy Friday and Happy 4th of July!

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