Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing

67 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2013

See all articles by Crystal Yang

Crystal Yang

University of Chicago - Law School

Date Written: October 30, 2013


The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants. This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005). Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length. To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants. Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.

Suggested Citation

Yang, Crystal, Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing (October 30, 2013). University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 661, Available at SSRN:

Crystal Yang (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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