Peeking Behind the Backstage Curtain: A New Approach to the Study of Prosecutorial Discretion

Jill Farrell, University of Maryland at College Park

A substantial body of research has investigated the issue of unwarranted disparity in the sentencing of criminal offenders. In general, this research has focused on the discretion of sentencing judges; however, some researchers have recognized that other courtroom actors also hold considerable discretion in determining sentence outcomes for offenders. In particular, prosecutors enjoy almost unfettered discretion in determining how to charge offenders and when to bargain for a guilty plea. These charging decisions may have a differential effect on groups of offenders depending on their age, gender, or race. Past research on the causes of prosecutorial discretion has involved labor-intensive data collection efforts utilizing files that contain relevant information on this backstage process. The present study uses frontstage data, normally used to study judicial discretion, to determine the factors that influence prosecutorial discretion. By using a mandatory firearm penalty as an anchor, I will isolate prosecutorial discretion and determine when prosecutors do not charge as the law prescribes.

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Updated 05/20/2006