Plea Agendas in Federal Sentencing: Quantittive and Qualittive Evidence From Three District courts

Jeffery T. Ulmer, Pennsylvania State University
Lisa L. Miller, The Pennsylvania State University

The Federal Criminal Justice System applies a single set of federal statutes using identical rules of procedure through the joint interaction of a common set of officials and organizations (U.S. attorneys and assistant, federal judges, U.S. Probation Officers, U.S. Public Defenders, court-appointed CJA attorneys, and private attorneys). It does so in the full diversity that characterizes the people, culture, and politics of the United States. It provides a heretofore largely unexploited research setting rich with potential to advance our theoretical understanding of how important sociological and political processes work. Our paper addresses the gap in the literature identified by LaCasse and Payne (1999:268): "An analysis of differences in practices across district courts, as well as a more explicit examination of the prosecutor's role, are fruitful avenues of future study, likely to contribute both to our understanding of the true process by which penalties are rendered and of the effects of the reforms on this process." In this paper, we examine plea agendas and their role in sentencing processes and outcomes in four U.S. district courts, using quantitative data on sentencing outcomes and qualitative data from field interviews and observations. We focus on plea agenda items such as the following: the decision to prosecute and the nature of charges, the timing of plea negotiations, relevant conduct stipulations in plea agreements, the definition of "substantial assistance" and the use of "substantial assistance" (5K1) guideline departures, the definition of "acceptance of responsibility" and circumstances of granting sentence reductions for it, the circumstances surrounding judicial discretion (5K2) departures, the role of Federal Probation Officer presentence reports, the use of federal Rule 35 (which permits resentencing of an offender up to one year after initial sentencing), and the use of plea agreements that bind federal judges (under Rule 11(e)(1)(c)). The role of these plea agenda items and the variation in their use is sometimes reflected in quantitative models of sentencing outcomes for each district. More often, however, quantitative models of sentencing outcomes obscure these important inter-district variations in the nature of case processing and sentencing in the federal system.

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Updated 05/20/2006