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Heuristic Influences Over Offense Seriousness Calculations: A Multilevel Investigation of Racial Disparity Under Sentencing Guidelines

NCJ Number
Punishment & Society Volume: 11 Issue: 2 Dated: April 2009 Pages: 191-218
Paula Kautt
Date Published
April 2009
28 pages
This study employed Federal sentencing data to assess whether offense seriousness predictors varied significantly by defendant race and probation office.
The results suggest that Federal Probation Officers (FPOs), in an effort to meet their diverse responsibilities in the time allotted, used heuristics (set of rules or guidelines) when making offense seriousness determinations. This provided a previously neglected explanation for the persisting differential effects and highlighted the utility of heuristic mechanisms in explaining both discretionary decisions and apparent disparate treatment by race or ethnicity in the criminal justice system. Discretionary decisions are integral to the criminal justice system. Often, structured interventions were introduced in an effort to control or guide discretion use. In the United States, grid-based sentencing guidelines were commonly used to channel sentencing discretion. However, the discretionary decisions related to these guidelines might have contributed to racial disparity which had seldom been explored. Using Federal sentencing data, a data-partitioning strategy and multilevel multivariate analyses, this study examined whether there were significant differences in the Federal offense seriousness calculations for African-American and White defendants. It was postulated that intellectual shortcuts or heuristics used in determining offense seriousness would result in racial variation both in the scores and in sentencing outcomes. Tables, notes, and references