Implementing Sentencing Reform Under Guidelines: A Test of the Hydraulic Displacement Thesis

Rodney L. Engen, North Carolina State University
Sara Steen, University of Colorado, Boulder

A fundamental criticism of sentencing guidelines is that discretion shifts from judges to prosecutors because the sentencing options available to judges depend on the charges filed by prosecutors. Consequently, the goals of sentencing reforms may be circumvented by prosecutors' manipulating charges and through plea-bargaining. Specifically, the hydraulic displacement of discretion thesis predicts that changes in sentencing laws under guidelines will result in changes in prosecutorial behavior that neutralize, mitigate or otherwise distort the effects of sentencing reforms. This research tests, directly, the displacement hypothesis by examining the implementation of a major sentencing reform bill passed in Washington State in 1999 that significantly alters sentencing options for felony drug offenders. We test the hypothesis with quantitative data on charging decisions in felony drug cases, and through interviews with court actors, before and after the sentencing options were changed. Our findings indicate that, in this instance, charging practices were largely unaffected by the changes in sentencing laws.

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Updated 05/20/2006