This Article empirically illustrates that the introduction of voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines at the state-level can contribute to statistically significant reductions in sentence length, inter-judge disparities, and racial disparities.
For much of American history, judges had largely unguided discretion to select criminal sentences within statutorily authorized ranges. But in the mid-to-late twentieth century, states and the federal government began experimenting with sentencing guidelines designed to reign in judicial discretion to ensure that similarly situated offenders received comparable sentences. Some states have made their guidelines voluntary, while others have made their guidelines presumptive or mandatory, meaning that judges must generally adhere to them unless they can justify a departure.
In order to explore the effects of both voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines on judicial behavior, this Article relies on a comprehensive dataset of 221,934 criminal sentences handed down by 355 different judges in Alabama between 2002 and 2015. This dataset provides a unique opportunity to address this empirical question, in part because of Alabama’s legislative history. Between 2002 and 2006, Alabama had no sentencing guidelines. In 2006, the state introduced voluntary sentencing guidelines. Then in 2013, the state made these sentencing guidelines presumptive for some non-violent offenses.
Using a difference-in-difference framework, we find that the introduction of voluntary sentencing guidelines in Alabama coincided with a decrease in average sentence length of around seven months. When the same guidelines became presumptive, the average sentence length dropped by almost two years. Further, using a triple difference framework, we show that the adoption of these sentencing guidelines coincided with around eight to twelve-month reductions in race-based sentencing disparities and substantial reductions in inter-judge sentencing disparities across all classes of offenders. Combined, this data suggests that voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines can help states combat inequality in their criminal justice systems while controlling the sizes of their prison populations.
Griffin Edwards, Stephen Rushin & Joseph Colquitt, The Effects of Voluntary and Presumptive Sentencing Guidelines, 98 Tex. L. Rev. 1 (2019).