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Legal Change and Sentencing Norms in Federal Court: An Examination of the Impact of the Booker, Gall, and Kimbrough Decisions

NCJ Number
Date Published
August 2013
75 pages
This study examined sentencing in Federal drug trafficking cases since the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory in judicial sentencing decisions (US v. Booker [2005], Gall v. US [2007] and Kimbrough v. US [2007]).
These decisions mean that judges are now free to impose sentences other than those specified by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, so long as they explicitly explain their reasons for departing from the Guidelines. The current study indicates that drug-trafficking sentences lengths have steadily decreased over time, as reflected in the difference between the Guideline minimum sentence and actual imposed sentence. This suggests that in sentencing for drug offenses, Federal courts have engaged in a correction of the long. draconian Federal drug sentences enacted by Congress and incorporated in the sentencing guidelines developed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission; however, the sentencing trends for drug offenses have varied by Federal district and by State over time, tending to stabilize in a distinctive pattern. This indicates that the Federal court system should not be viewed as a unified system that changes lockstep in response to particular U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In addition, in any given year, individual case factors explain the bulk of variance in sentence outcomes. The study methodology involved quantitative analyses of U.S. Sentencing Commission individual sentence-outcome data, supplemented with district-level and State-level variables. Sentence-outcome by district was examined for five categories of drug-trafficking offenses (crack cocaine, powder cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana) subject to section 2D1 of the Guidelines from 1993 to 2009. Research questions about the quality, variation, and extent of sentencing change over time were tested using hierarchical linear modeling in the first set of analyses. Statistical analyses methods are explained. 12 tables, 5 figures, and 51 references

Date Published: August 1, 2013