The Effects of Voluntary and Presumptive Sentencing Guidelines

65 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2019

See all articles by Griffin Sims Edwards

Griffin Sims Edwards

University of Alabama at Birmingham - Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution & Economics

Stephen Rushin

Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Joseph A. Colquitt

University of Alabama - School of Law

Date Written: January 1, 2019

Abstract

This Article empirically illustrates that the introduction of voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines at the state-level can contribute to statistically significant reductions in sentence length, inter-judge disparities, and racial disparities.

For much of American history, judges had largely unguided discretion to select criminal sentences within statutorily authorized ranges. But in the mid-to-late twentieth century, states and the federal government began experimenting with sentencing guidelines designed to reign in judicial discretion to ensure that similarly situated offenders received comparable sentences. Some states have made their guidelines voluntary, while others have made their guidelines presumptive or mandatory, meaning that judges must generally adhere to them unless they can justify a departure.

In order to explore the effects of both voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines on judicial behavior, this Article relies on a comprehensive dataset of 221,934 criminal sentences handed down by 355 different judges in Alabama between 2002 and 2015. This dataset provides a unique opportunity to address this empirical question, in part because of Alabama’s legislative history. Between 2002 and 2006, Alabama had no sentencing guidelines. In 2006, the state introduced voluntary sentencing guidelines. Then in 2013, the state made these sentencing guidelines presumptive for some non-violent offenses.

Using a difference-in-difference framework, we find that the introduction of voluntary sentencing guidelines in Alabama coincided with a decrease in average sentence length of around seven months. When the same guidelines became presumptive, the average sentence length dropped by almost two years. Further, using a triple difference framework, we show that the adoption of these sentencing guidelines coincided with around eight to twelve-month reductions in race-based sentencing disparities and substantial reductions in inter-judge sentencing disparities across all classes of offenders. Combined, this data suggests that voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines can help states combat inequality in their criminal justice systems while controlling the sizes of their prison populations.

Keywords: sentencing, criminal sentencing, sentencing guidelines, voluntary sentencing guidelines, presumptive sentencing guidelines, criminal law, criminal procedure

JEL Classification: K00, K1, K14, K10

Suggested Citation

Edwards, Griffin Sims and Rushin, Stephen and Colquitt, Joseph A., The Effects of Voluntary and Presumptive Sentencing Guidelines (January 1, 2019). Texas Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3348027

Griffin Sims Edwards

University of Alabama at Birmingham - Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution & Economics ( email )

The University of Alabama at Birmingham
1720 2nd Ave South
Birmingham, AL 35294
United States

Stephen Rushin (Contact Author)

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 E. Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Joseph A. Colquitt

University of Alabama - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States
205-348-1145 (Phone)
205-348-5829 (Fax)

Register to save articles to
your library

Register

Paper statistics

Downloads
43
Abstract Views
435
PlumX Metrics