Modeling Limited Judicial Discretion

Avinash Singh Bhati, The Urban Institute

Sentencing Guidelines have been promulgated in many jurisdictions around the United States in an attempt to reduce, or even eliminate, unwarranted sentencing disparity, i.e., disparity not attributable to legally-relevant factors. Structured sentencing guidelines, based on legal factors such as prior criminal record and offense severity scores, aim to make sentencing more equitable by curtailing the amount of discretion available to judges. When analyzing samples of data from structured sentencing systems, however, researchers continue to rely on traditional (unrestricted) methods that do not adequately reflect the structure within which judges are sentencing. In this paper, using simple examples, I highlight a fundamental problem that arises when attempting to derive inferences about the impacts of legal and extra-legal factors on judicial decision making. I then suggest an alternate information-theoretic approach that allows one to impose on the model the kinds of restrictions that guidelines impose on the judges. Since the research is ongoing, empirical findings comparing inferences derived from the proposed approach with those derived from traditional methods will be presented at the conference.

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Updated 05/20/2006