Charging and Sentencing Decisions in Federal Court: An Analysis of the Interpretation and Application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in Three U.S. District Courts

Cassia Spohn, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Gale Iles, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Elizabeth Keller, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Studies of the federal sentencing process focus on sentencing decisions at the national level. These studies ignore prosecutors' charging and plea barbaining decisions and the effect of these decisions on sentence outcomes. They also assumne, either explicitly or implicitly, that there is little inter-district variation in case processing policies and procedures and that findings regarding sentence outcomes at the national level therefore reflect the reality of decision making in each of the U.S. District Courts. We use data on offenders sentenced in three U.S.District Courts to compare charging and plea bargaining practices in these three districts, to identify the predictors of charging and plea bargaining decisions, and to examine the effect of offender and case characteristics on sentence outcomes at the district level. Our objectives are to remove the "cloak of secrecy" that surrounds charging and plea bargaining in the federal criminal justice system and to untangle the complex inter-relationships among charging decisions, plea agreements, and sentence outcomes.

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Updated 05/20/2006