Studying Disparity Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Paul J. Hofer, U.S. Sentencing Commission
Kevin R. Blackwell, U.S. Sentencing Commission

Researchers from the U.S. Sentencing Commission have previously reported several methodological problems with existing studies of disparity under the federal sentencing guidelines. In a recent issue of Criminology (Vol. 38, No. 4, p. 1207), Engen and Gainey propose a "presumptive sentence" method for controlling for legally relevant variables in a multivariate analysis, which can address some of the problems with the existing research. Commission staff have re-analyzed federal sentencing data using this approach. Our results are in several important respects different from the conclusions in previously published research. These differences have implications for whether discrimination affects federal sentences, and for identifying where and how any unfairness arises. This panel brings together government and academic scholars to discuss how best to study disparity under the federal guidelines, how to interpret the variation in results, and how much we can expect to learn by pursuing this and similar approaches further. The Commission's critique of the existing research and its re-analysis of federal data using the presumptive sentence approach will be presented, and panelists will then discuss the results and have the opportunity to present any alternative interpretations or to argue for a different approach.

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Updated 05/20/2006