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Sentence Decisionmaking - The Logic of Sentence Decisions and the Extent and Sources of Sentence Disparity

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume: 72 Issue: 2 Dated: (Summer 1981) Pages: 524-554
K Clancy; J Bartolomeo; D Richardson; C Wellford
Date Published
31 pages
This national survey of Federal judges aimed to determine the extent of sentence disparity, examine the effect of specific case characteristics on sentence decisions, and determine the effect of judge and judicial environment attributes on decisions.
Interviews were held in 1979 with 264 active Federal district judges. Analytic techniques included repeated measures of variance, interpolation and extrapolation, analysis of variance, micromodeling, and step-wise regression analysis. Results suggest a considerable need for guidelines, as disparity is widespread, with substantial dissensus among judges about the sentences which hypothetical cases should have received. The survey revealed that judges do not extemporize sentences each time they reach a sentence decision. Rather, disparities are anchored in patterned differences regarding overall value orientations about the functions of criminal sanctions, judgments about the appropriate goal of case-specific sentences, perceptions about the severity and the sentences themselves, predispositions to sentence in a relatively harsh or lenient fashion, and perceptions of the seriousness of particular attributes of a case. These patterns are related not just to the case of the offender who is being sentenced but also to the characteristics of the judge doing the sentencing. Thus, guidelines will yield two general consequences for the criminal justice system. First, disparity could be diminished by specifying the importance that each case and offender attribute should assume in arriving at a sentence. However, by enhancing the order and structure of these decisions as they relate to case or offender characteristics, guidelines will have an equal and opposite effect on the hidden order that characterizes current decisionmaking. Guidelines can thus be viewed broadly as a mechanism for replacing one type of order (created by the judge) with another (created by the sentencing commission). Footnotes and table are provided. (Author abstract modified)