Why you really don't want to get arrested in South Mississippi

U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden is flanked by his father, Halil’s, suitcase and naturalization certificate as he speaks during a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens at the Dan M. Russell federal courthouse in Gulfport in 2011. Halil Ozerden had immigrated from Turkey and was naturalized in 1971.
U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden is flanked by his father, Halil’s, suitcase and naturalization certificate as he speaks during a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens at the Dan M. Russell federal courthouse in Gulfport in 2011. Halil Ozerden had immigrated from Turkey and was naturalized in 1971. Sun Herald file

Full-time federal judges in Mississippi's Southern District are a tough bunch, according to a database that reveals average sentences -- and much more -- imposed on criminals across the nation.

All but one of the six active judges in Southern District divisions -- Jackson, Hattiesburg, Gulfport and Natchez -- averaged higher sentences for defendants over a five-year period than did their counterparts nationwide.

Judge Henry Wingate in Jackson handed

down sentences that were 24.3 percent lower than the district-wide average and 8.4 percent lower than the nationwide average.

The judges in Gulfport and Hattiesburg ranked at the top of the list for longest average sentences in the Southern District.

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"There's no lucky break a defendant's likely to get in the Southern District," said Matt Steffey, a professor who specializes in criminal law at Mississippi College law school. "There's no soft spot."

Syracuse University in New York collects and maintains a vast quantity of computerized data on federal judges, and other federal staffing, spending and enforcement activities. For a fee, the Sun Herald was able to examine caseloads for the 10 active judges, plus sentencing averages.

Drugs and deception

The Sun Herald also reviewed sentencing records for the three judges in the southernmost courthouses -- Gulfport and Hattiesburg -- regarding their two most-voluminous categories of cases: narcotics and white-collar crime.

The information comes with a caution: The kinds of cases a judge handles must be considered, because sentencing ranges vary depending on the crime. When looking at one category of crime, such as drugs, discrepancies in severity also must be taken into account.

For example, criminal lawyers in the Southern District believe drug sentences would be harsher in Gulfport because Interstate 10 is a pipeline for large quantities of narcotics. Sentencing guidelines take into account the amount of drugs and severity of the charges. The guidelines limit a judge's discretion, but judges do have some latitude.

Two of the three judges in the southernmost courtrooms, Gulfport and Hattiesburg, averaged the longest sentences imposed in Southern District drug cases. Keith Starrett, who hears all the federal cases in Hattiesburg but also travels to Natchez, averaged the longest sentences given in Southern District drug cases. His average drug sentence was just shy of 10 years. Judge Sul Ozerden in Gulfport followed with an average sentence of 9.2 years. Judge Louis Guirola Jr., also in Gulfport, fell in the middle for the entire district, with an average drug sentence of a little more than seven years.

White-collar crime represented the most cases for only one judge, Daniel Jordan. Jordan also had the highest average sentence in white-collar crime cases of the six judges. Starrett averaged the longest sentences in the two southernmost districts, with Ozerden right behind him. Guirola's average sentence for white collar crimes was the lowest among the full-time Hattiesburg and Gulfport judges.

The white-collar crime category is broad, including tax and bankruptcy fraud, arson for profit, aggravated identify theft and antitrust violations.

Steffey offered a second caution: "The most statistics can do is show a difference, not the cause of a difference or tell us whether the difference is good or bad."

Heavy caseloads

Caseloads for the judges vary based on geography. The three judges in Gulfport and Hattiesburg handled more criminal cases over a one-year period ending in June 2015 than did the judges in Jackson and Natchez. The Jackson and Natchez judges had the heaviest civil case loads. The federal judges in Jackson also handle complex constitutional cases that can be time-consuming.

Chief Southern District Judge Guirola, who is based in Gulfport, can monitor caseloads at the push of a button. Case assignments are random, but some cases are more complex and time-consuming than others, whether civil or criminal. The vast majority of cases settle without going to trial.

Every six months, a committee of judges reviews workloads to make sure cases are equitably distributed, Guirola said. Because the heaviest caseload is in Jackson, other judges travel there to help. Three active judges and two judges on senior status, which means their caseloads are lighter, are based in Jackson.

In Gulfport, almost all cases are assigned to Ozerden and Guirola, and Starrett handles all cases in Hattiesburg and most cases in Natchez, where Judge David Bramlette is on senior status.

Guirola said: "I see the statistics every month, and I see what all our judges are doing -- active, senior and magistrate judges -- and from what I see, I am very satisfied that they all are working and working very hard. The vast majority of judges are tending to their cases expeditiously. This is evident by the statistics I review every month."

Ozerden presided over the most criminal convictions and sentences for the five-year period, 262 and 280, respectively, followed by Starrett in Hattiesburg. Still, Guirola, the other active judge in Gulfport, presided over more convictions and sentenced more defendants than did judges in Jackson and Natchez.

Mississippi's Southern District judges have earned the respect of attorneys who practice in their courts. The state's federal courts are part of the U.S. Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

"I've got a lot of confidence in the system," said a criminal defense attorney in the Southern District. "I don't like the draconian sentences that are handed out, but they're all within the rules.

"The Fifth Circuit is not a good circuit to be a criminal in. The Fifth Circuit is tough."

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