Sentencing Disparity and Departures as a Mediational Process

Rodney L. Engen, North Carolina State University
Randy R. Gainey, Old Dominion University

The role of sentencing guideline departures in producing unwarranted disparities is a critical issue in research on sentencing guidelines. However, most studies do not directly estimate the extent to which departures, in fact, explain sentencing disparities related to status characteristics such as race-ethnicity or gender. Consequently, the overall importance of departures in producing disparity remains largely unknown. This paper addresses some limitations of existing research on the role of departures in producing disparity, and proposes an alternative, causal modeling, approach that treats departure decisions as a mediating process. We find that departures from guidelines contribute significantly to disparity in imprisonment because minority defendants and males are less likely to receive downward departures than whites and females. However, the effects of race-ethnicity and gender on sentencing outcomes are largely independent of the use of departures.

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Updated 05/20/2006