Reviewing the Sentencing Guidelines: Judicial Politics, Empirical Evidence, and Reform
61 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2007
Date Written: June 2007
This article presents the first large-scale empirical study of federal guidelines sentencing that matches offenders to the sentencing judge. We confirm the widely-held belief that political ideology matters in criminal sentencing - specifically, Republican-appointed judges give longer sentences than Democrat-appointees with regard to certain crimes. More interestingly, we find evidence consistent with positive political theory that such decision making is nested within the broader political-ideological relationship of the sentencing judge and the overseeing circuit court. We find, for example, that Democrat-appointed judges depart from the Sentencing Guidelines to give shorter sentences more often and to a greater degree when the reviewing court is politically aligned (circuit majority Democrat-appointed) than when not aligned (circuit majority Republican-appointed). We then discuss the Supreme Court's evolving sentencing jurisprudence and the likely impact of alternatives to the present system. We conclude that Guidelines improves sentencing consistency and preserves the benefit of appellate review. We also proposes two potential reforms: first, mandating open access to judge identifiers in sentencing data for researchers to study sources of judicial bias; and, second, mandating ideologically mixed appellate panels for review of criminal sentences to prevent the more extreme instances of ideological alignment that frequently occur between district and circuit court panels that lead to more extreme outcomes in sentencing.
Keywords: Judicial decision-making, criminal law, sentencing, political science
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