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Sentencing Guidelines and Judicial Discretion: Quasi-experimental Evidence from Human Calculation Errors

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  • Shawn D. Bushway
  • Emily G. Owens
  • Anne Morrison Piehl

Abstract

There is a debate about whether advisory non-binding sentencing guidelines affect the sentences outcomes of individuals convicted in jurisdictions with this sentencing framework. Identifying the impact of sentencing guidelines is a difficult empirical problem because court actors may have preferences for sentencing severity that are correlated with the preferences that are outlined in the guidelines. But, in Maryland, ten percent of the recommended sentences computed in the guideline worksheets contain calculation errors. We use this unique source of quasi-experimental variation to quantify the extent to which sentencing guidelines influence policy outcomes. Among drug offenses, we find that the direct impact of the guidelines is roughly ½ the size of the overall correlation between recommendations and outcomes. For violent offenses, we find the same ½ discount for sentence recommendations that are higher than they should have been, but more responsiveness to recommendations that are too low. We find no evidence that the guidelines themselves directly affect discretion for property offenders, perhaps because judges generally have substantial experience with property cases and therefore do not rely on the errant information. Sentences are more sensitive to both accurate and inaccurate recommendations for crimes that occur less frequently and have more complicated sentencing. This suggests that when the court has more experience, the recommendations have less influence. More tentative findings suggest that, further down the decision chain, parole boards counteract the remaining influence of the guidelines.

Suggested Citation

  • Shawn D. Bushway & Emily G. Owens & Anne Morrison Piehl, 2011. "Sentencing Guidelines and Judicial Discretion: Quasi-experimental Evidence from Human Calculation Errors," NBER Working Papers 16961, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16961
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    Cited by:

    1. Christoph Engel, 2016. "Experimental Criminal Law. A Survey of Contributions from Law, Economics and Criminology," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2016_07, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
    2. M. Marit Rehavi & Sonja B. Starr, 2014. "Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Sentences," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 122(6), pages 1320-1354.
    3. DeAngelo, Gregory & Owens, Emily G., 2017. "Learning the ropes: General experience, task-Specific experience, and the output of police officers," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 142(C), pages 368-377.
    4. Christoph Engel, 2022. "Judicial Decision-Making. A Survey of the Experimental Evidence," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2022_06, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
    5. William Harbaugh & Naci Mocan & Michael Visser, 2013. "Theft and Deterrence," Journal of Labor Research, Springer, vol. 34(4), pages 389-407, December.
    6. Estelle, Sarah M. & Phillips, David C., 2018. "Smart sentencing guidelines: The effect of marginal policy changes on recidivism," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 164(C), pages 270-293.
    7. Bindler, Anna & Hjalmarsson, Randi, 2016. "The Fall of Capital Punishment and the Rise of Prisons: How Punishment Severity Affects Jury Verdicts," Working Papers in Economics 674, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economics.
    8. Kevin Kwok‐yin Cheng & Sayaka Ri & Natasha Pushkarna, 2020. "Judicial Disparity, Deviation, and Departures from Sentencing Guidelines: The Case of Hong Kong," Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 17(3), pages 580-614, September.
    9. Cécile Bourreau-Dubois & Bruno Deffains & Myriam Doriat-Duban & Bruno Jeandidier, 2021. "Guidelines: Decision-Making Tools for Litigantsand Judges [Les barèmes, outils d’aide à la décision pour les justiciables et les juges]," Post-Print hal-03054417, HAL.

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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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