A Longitudinal Study of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines: A Decade of Balancing Judicial Discretion and Unwarranted Disparity (1993-2003)
Sharp, Barbara Ann
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This research focuses on judicial decision-making in the federal courts to determine whether unwarranted disparities persist, and also to gauge the change, if any, that occurs over time. Three sentencing outcomes were analyzed: the in/out incarceration decision, the length of term of incarceration decision, and the judicial downward departure decision. Eleven consecutive fiscal years of data from all 94 federal district courts were used to assess the effects of a defendant's gender, race and ethnicity, mode of conviction, offense type, district court location, and year of sentencing on the sentencing outcome. The results of the study were presented along two dimensions, namely as overall aggregate findings concerning the effects of these factors, and secondly, as findings concerning the effects of these factors on each individual fiscal year to measure the changes in the influence of these factors over time. The aggregate findings show that female defendants are treated more leniently while black and Hispanic defendants were hampered in all three sentencing outcomes--Hispanics more so for the incarceration decision, and blacks more so for the length-of-term and the judicial downward departure decision. The mode of conviction was found to be highly significant, penalizing those defendants who were convicted at trial. The influence of the offense type categories, the fiscal year of sentencing, and many of the district court variables were also significant. The findings from the temporal analysis indicate that gender became less significant over time in the incarceration decision as the probability of going to prison increased for all defendants. The probability of Black and Hispanic defendants being incarcerated and of their length-of-term changed over time, but their likelihoods for receiving downward departures did not. The only change noted for the mode of conviction was for judicial downward departures, but the change was an even greater decrease in the likelihood of receiving this type of departure. Additional findings suggest that defendants sentenced for immigration offenses are treated differently at sentencing, and that differences in these three sentencing outcomes vary by district court and by the fiscal year in which the sentencing occurred.