Guideline Revisions and Courtroom Actor Decision-Making: Assessing the Influence of Legislative Changes in Pennsylvania, 1991-2000

John H. Kramer, The Pennsylvania State University
Brian D. Johnson, University of Maryland at College Park

Despite the widespread implementation and restructuring of sentencing guidelines, relatively little empirical evidence exists on whether or not courtroom actor sentencing behavior is significantly influenced by guideline revisions. On the one hand, legally mandated guideline recommendations should serve to structure courtroom decision making; however, as some scholars suggest, the influence of these formal guidelines may be superceded by the informal concerns of individual courtroom actors embedded in locally varying courtroom norms (e.g. Ulmer and Kramer, 1998). Using ten years of data from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing (1991-2000), the present study investigates the extent to which courtroom actor sentencing behavior is influenced by recent guideline revisions (in 1994 and 1997) in the state of Pennsylvania. Preliminary findings suggest that guideline revisions do in fact affect change in overall sentencing patterns. We discuss these findings in terms of both public policy concerns surrounding the continuing evolution of sentencing guidelines, and in terms of theoretical perspectives regarding the relative import of "formally rational" guidelines and "substantively rational" courtroom actor sentencing norms.

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Updated 05/20/2006