Sentencing of Federal Drug Trafficking/Manufacturing Offenders: The Importance of Legal Environment

Celesta A. Albonetti, University of Iowa
Ryan E. Spohn, University of Iowa

Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Congress established the United States Sentencing Commission and charged it with the task of designing a sentencing structure that would avoid "unwarranted sentencing disparity among defendants with similar records who had been found guilty of similar criminal conduct." In November 1987 the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were enacted. During the last fourteen years research has addressed the net effect of defendant's ethnicity and gender on sentence outcomes. In addition, some research has sought to examine the effect of sources of discretion, guidelines departures and guilty pleas, on sentence severity. Findings from most of this empirical research have revealed direct and conditioning effect of defendant's ethnicity and gender on length of imprisonment. These studies have focused on the effect of the net effect of defendant characteristics, guidelines-defined legally relevant variables, and sources of discretion on sentence outcomes, controlling for the direct effect of federal circuit differences. These studies have estimated regression models of sentencing with dummy variable circuit and/or district contrasts. Because of the potential importance of federal district differences in guidelines departures and guilty plea negotiations, and circuit differences in interpretation of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, we examine district and circuit level variables using hierarchical linear modeling procedures. These procedures permit an estimation of within district, across district, and across circuit effects on length of imprisonment. Our research focuses on federal drug trafficking offenders who were sentenced under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines during the fiscal year 1995-1996.

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Updated 05/20/2006