Into the Twilight Zone: Informing Judicial Discretion in Federal Sentencing

52 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2009 Last revised: 8 Sep 2009

Date Written: February 19, 2009


Recent changes in federal sentencing have shifted discretionary decision-making back to federal district court judges, while appellate courts review challenged sentences for reasonableness. Each judge brings considerable legal experience and qualifications to the bench, however, cultural experiences cannot necessarily prepare judges for the range of persons or situations they will address on the bench. Social psychologists who have studied social cognition have determined that the human brain creates categories and associations resulting in implicit biases and associations that are often unconscious or subconscious. Moreover, research suggests that such biases may be overcome or at least compensated by education on awareness of bias and countermeasures. Identifying unconscious preferences or biases and learning effective mechanisms for managing and changing unwanted preferences can impact the reasonable exercise of discretion on a case-by-case basis in sentencing decisions.

Judges are expected to render decisions impartially. Nowhere is the need more critical than judicial determinations impacting liberty interests by imposing criminal punishment, and in particular, imprisonment. Lack of awareness or education is likely to lead to suboptimal sentencing outcomes based upon in-group bias, inaccurate cultural associations, and other cognitive flaws that will invite further political disruption. In contrast, investing in cultural competence and social cognition educational programs, and structuring programs to encourage interest in and attendance at such programs, can inform judges to improve their discretionary decision-making by overcoming any latent biases, thereby benefiting society through a more just legal system.

Keywords: federal sentencing, social cognition, judicial discretion, sentencing decisions

Suggested Citation

Ramirez, Mary Kreiner, Into the Twilight Zone: Informing Judicial Discretion in Federal Sentencing (February 19, 2009). Drake Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 3, 2009. Available at SSRN:

Mary Kreiner Ramirez (Contact Author)

Washburn University - School of Law ( email )

1700 College Avenue
Topeka, KS 66621
United States

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