Sentencing Decisions of Individual Judges: Does the Sentence an Offender Receives Depend on the Juge Who Imposes It?

Cassia Spohn, University of Nebraska at Omaha

In 1972, Marvin Frankel, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, issued an influential call for reform of the sentencing process. Frankel decried the degree of discretion given to judges, which he maintained led to Alawlessness@ in sentencing, and called for legislative reforms designed to regulate Athe unchecked powers of the untutored judge.@ Frankel=s call for reform did not go unheeded. Reformers from both sides of the political spectrum joined in the attack on indeterminate sentencing and pushed for reforms designed to curtail judicial discretion and eliminate unwarranted disparity in sentencing. The purpose of this paper is to test the assumption that structuring discretion produces uniformity in sentencing. Using data on offenders convicted of felonies in a jurisdiction with determinate sentencing (Cook County, Illinois), we test three inter-related hypotheses: first, that sentence outcomes will vary among Cook County Circuit Court judges; second, that the predictors of sentence outcomes will vary by judge; and, third, that sentence outcomes will be conditioned by the judge=s race, gender, prior professional experience, and number of years on the bench. The results of our analyses reveal that the sentencing decisions of individual judges are not invariant.

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Updated 05/20/2006