Academic journal article Justice System Journal

Comparing Between-Judge Disparities in Imprisonment Decisions across Sentencing Regimes in Ohio

Academic journal article Justice System Journal

Comparing Between-Judge Disparities in Imprisonment Decisions across Sentencing Regimes in Ohio

Article excerpt

Empirical studies of judicial effects on the use of imprisonment have yet to estimate changes in these effects under more-Structured sentencing schemes. Findings are presented from a multilevel analysis of whether the implementation of Ohio's presumptive guidelines in 1996 was effective for reducing inter-judge differences in the distribution of non-suspended prison sentences and in defendant-level effects on imprisonment. These data for seven urban courts provide a unique opportunity to estimate changes in judicial effects across sentencing regimes. Results suggest that Ohio's guidelines were successful for reducing judicial effects on sentencing based on judges' tenure on the bench, prosecutorial experience, and caseload composition.

Scholarly interest in judicial effects on sentencing (such as whether the use of imprisonment for convicted defendants varies by a judge's sex, race, years on the bench, etc.) has generated a number of studies on the subject (e.g., Anderson and Spohn, 2010; Collins and Moyer, 2008; Frazier and Bock, 1982; Gruhl, Spohn, and Welch, 1981; Johnson, 2006; Kritzer and Uhlman, 1977; Meyer and Jesilow, 1997; Muhlhausen, 2004; Myers and Talarico, 1987; Scott, 2010; Spohn 1990a, b; Steffensmeier and Britt, 2001; Steffensmeier and Hebert, 1999; Tiede, Carp, and Manner, 2010; Ulman, 1978; Ulmer, 2005; Welch, Combs, and Gruhl, 1988). All of these studies have found significant differences across judges in the use of imprisonment, although findings are mixed for specific types of judicial effects such as a judge's sex and race. Over the past decade, more attention has been paid to inter-judge disparities under sentencing guidelines (United States Sentencing Commission, 2005), with discussions of how these disparities might be curbed with more-structured sentencing schemes. However, the most recent research on this topic has focused primarily on the federal sentencing guidelines (with a couple of exceptions such as Johnson, 2006; Ulmer, 2005) and have consisted mostly of post-guideline analyses that cannot determine whether changes in sentencing schemes actually coincided with reductions in judicial effects.

To address judicial effects on sentencing under state guidelines and whether these effects were stronger before their implementation, we took advantage of examining an older data set tapping sentencing decisions across Ohio Common Pleas Courts immediately before and shortly after the implementation of presumptive sentencing guidelines in 1996 (Wooldredge et ah, 2002). An analysis of judicial effects on sentencing has never been performed with these data because of the absence of information on judges in the original set (which were added to conduct the analyses presented here). While findings may not generalize to sentencing across the state of Ohio today, given that the presumptive guidelines became voluntary in 2006, these data provide a unique opportunity to more directly examine whether changes in the structure of sentencing decisions might correspond with greater consistency in the use of imprisonment across judges, regardless of their personal characteristics.

The question of whether more-structured sentencing schemes might help to curb inter-judge disparities in sentencing and reduce judicial effects based on factors such as a judge's race, sex, or tenure on the bench is a different question from whether defendant-level effects based on extralegal factors tend to dissipate under more-structured sentencing. Defendant-level effects might appear to be null when pooled across judges, yet null effects could result from differences in the strength of defendant-level effects across judges. To more fully understand whether more-structured sentencing is successful for reducing disparate sentencing, it is necessary to examine changes in the uniformity of sentencing across judges and whether greater uniformity also reflects the absence of considerations of defendants' personal characteristics. …

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