The Effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on Inter-Judge Sentencing Disparity

By Hofer, Paul J.; Blackwell, Kevin R. et al. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on Inter-Judge Sentencing Disparity


Hofer, Paul J., Blackwell, Kevin R., Ruback, R. Barry, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

A. THE GOALS OF SENTENCING REFORM

The sentencing reforms of the past twenty-five years have had several goals, including "truth in sentencing," control of prison populations, and reduction of unwarranted disparity. The first goal was easily achieved when parole was abolished and the sentence imposed became the sentence served. Control of prison populations proved more difficult, and careful evaluation is needed to determine whether sentencing reform helped to check, or may have accelerated, the steady rise in prison inmates and crowding of prisons.(1) Among the most important goals motivating reform at the federal level was reduction of unwarranted sentencing disparity.(2) Yet more than ten years after enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and implementation of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's guidelines, there is no consensus on whether they have reduced unwarranted disparity in federal sentences.

As reviewed below, the evidence is persuasive that, in the pre-guideline era, differences among judges in sentencing philosophies were the primary sources of unwarranted disparity. There are reasons to hope that the federal guidelines have been effective at controlling these differences: they are the most detailed guidelines ever developed, and they are mandatory. Judges can depart from the guidelines only for limited reasons that must be stated on the record, and that are then subject to appellate review. But these departures from the guidelines, as well as plea agreements that ignore the guidelines and inconsistencies in application of the guidelines, might reintroduce disparity into the system.

In this paper, after reviewing problems that have plagued earlier research, we conclude that the "natural experiment" created by the random assignment of cases to judges in many courthouses around the country provides the best opportunity to evaluate the success of the guidelines at reducing disparity. Although the natural experiment approach does not permit evaluation of disparity in individual cases, and does not permit direct examination of prosecutor-created disparity, it does allow us to draw some conclusions about the effect of the guidelines on inter-judge disparity. In particular, it permits precise measurement of changes in the "primary judge effect"--the overall tendency of some judges to be more lenient or severe than others, as measured by differences in average sentences among judges with comparable caseloads. We believe this is an important barometer of the success of the guidelines because it represents the "tip of the iceberg" of disparity that would be observed--and is observed in simulation studies--when identical cases are sentenced by different judges.

What we find in the results of this natural experiment is that the guidelines have significantly reduced overall inter-judge disparity in sentences imposed, much as the parole guidelines reduced disparity in time actually served prior to implementation of the sentencing guidelines. Together with the other research reviewed below, these findings suggest that the sentencing guidelines have had modest but meaningful success at reducing unwarranted disparity among judges in the sentences imposed on similar crimes and offenders.

The success, however, is uneven. Some types of cases show no improvement, or show improvement in some cities but not in others. Further, there is evidence that some regional sentencing differences have increased under the guidelines, particularly in drug trafficking cases. These results demonstrate the need for further exploration of the sources of these remaining disparities, and of what additional changes are needed to make fair and uniform sentencing attainable for all types of cases in all places.

B. DEFINING AND MEASURING UNWARRANTED DISPARITY

To evaluate the guideline's success at reducing disparity we first must define the problem. A truism of sentencing research is that sentences should vary according to the seriousness of the crime and the dangerousness of the offender, but that "unwarranted disparity" is undesirable and unfair. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on Inter-Judge Sentencing Disparity
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.