Sentencing Research Paper

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Research on sentencing has been an active field of inquiry for several decades. The 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were particularly noteworthy. These decades saw advances in the quality of data, the sophistication of research methods, and improvements in theory. This research paper provides a conceptual survey of research on noncapital sentencing outcomes since 2000. The paper first looks backward at the research agenda posed by reviews in the early 1980s and in 2000. Theoretical developments in the study of sentencing in the 1990s and 2000s are then discussed. An overview is next provided of recent sentencing research focused on the following: (1) court organizational and social contexts, (2) individual courtroom workgroup members, (3) disparity conditional on intersecting defendant characteristics, (4) victim characteristics, and (5) earlier case processing events and decisions.

The central focus of this research paper is noncapital sentencing decisions as focal dependent variables. However, it is recognized that sentencing decisions are conditioned by and interdependent with a chain of earlier and later criminal justice processing decisions that are embedded in organizational and broader contexts. This research paper also primarily focuses on research since 2000, discussed in the context of earlier reviews of sentencing research and theory in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sentencing Research In The 1990s: Responding To Issues And Opportunities

By far, the biggest development in the 1980s and 1990s was the availability of data collected by sentencing commissions in sentencing guideline states and the federal system. For the first time, researchers had at their disposal high-quality post-conviction, jurisdiction-wide data for very large numbers of cases. These data were disseminated by sentencing commissions with legal mandates to collect and make such data available. These data enabled progress on the following issues, raised by the important 1983 National Academy of Science assessment of sentencing research by Blumstein et al. (1983) and by Hagan and Bumiller in that report:

  1. The need for better measurement of legally relevant variables: Sentencing commission data enabled substantially improved measures of offense severity and criminal history, which had often been measured crudely in earlier research.
  2. The need to study different sentencing outcome variables: The Blumstein et al. (1983, p. 273) report called for “.. .more adequate treatments of the complexity of the dependent variable, sentence outcome.”
  3. The need for larger samples from more varied jurisdictions was particularly identified by Hagan and Bumiller (1983). Guideline data from states and the federal system provided very large samples drawn from large numbers of contextually diverse counties (for states) or district courts (with federal data).
  4. The need to investigate the effects of social contexts on sentencing and disparity was noted by Hagan and Bumiller (1983) among others. As noted above, sentencing data from a relatively wide range of local jurisdictions enabled research on local variation in sentencing severity and disparity.

Several chapters of the Blumstein et al. (1983) report and others called for consideration of sentencing in the contexts of earlier criminal justice decisions, particularly pretrial detention, charging, and conviction. It has long been recognized that sentencing is conditioned by selection processes in earlier justice system decisions. For all their benefits noted above, guideline sentencing data are limited to convicted offenders and do not include preconviction information such as the type and number of original charges (and rarely include pretrial detention). Datasets that include preconviction data for large numbers of cases and multiple local jurisdictions have traditionally been difficult to obtain. The years since the Blumstein et al. (1983) report have seen comparatively few studies that examine sentencing in the context of earlier decisions.

Relatedly, the Blumstein et al. (1983) report called for sentencing research to examine the effects of defendant socioeconomic status variables on sentencing outcomes and to disentangle the potential influence of race and ethnicity versus socioeconomic factors in sentencing. In addition, the Blumstein et al. (1983) report and others called for studies that examine sentencing variation between criminal justice actors, especially judges and prosecutors, and the effects of decision maker characteristics in explaining variation in sentencing. But, only a handful of studies since then have examined sentencing variation between judges, and the effect of judge characteristics, and even fewer studies have examined between-prosecutor variation. Also, defendant socioeconomic data and/or data on individual court actors has generally been hard to come by in the most widely used guideline datasets. Thus, studies that disentangle socioeconomic factors from other defendant characteristics (especially race or ethnicity) have not been as common.

Reviews Of The 1990s

Two comprehensive reviews (Spohn 2000; Zatz 2000) summed up research on sentencing up to 2000, primarily focusing on studies of disparity based on defendant social characteristics. Both reviews noted that research had improved in quality since the 1983 report. Both reports also highlighted research that went beyond simply assessing whether “race/ethnicity mattered” or “gender mattered” to investigating when and how such social statuses matter in sentencing – that is, investigating how the influence of race, ethnicity, and gender mutually conditioned one another and were also conditioned by other factors. Spohn’s (2000) review in particular provided a quantitative summary of racial/ethnic disparity studies with an eye to conditional influences.

Regarding the incarceration decision, Spohn (2000) found that 55 % of 45 effects in 31 state court studies she reviewed, and three of seven effects in eight federal court studies, showed significant black disadvantages. More importantly, Spohn (2000, see p. 462) found that eleven studies had looked at whether race and/or ethnic effects were conditioned by other social statuses or characteristics, especially gender and/or age. All eleven found evidence of such effects. In particular, four studies found sentencing disadvantages for young black and/or Hispanic males, four found sentencing disadvantages for unemployed young black or Hispanic males, one found disadvantages for poor minorities, and one found disadvantages for low-education minorities.

In addition, several studies in the 1990s showed that race or ethnicity effects on sentencing were conditional on criminal history, offense type or severity, case processing factors, or victim characteristics. Eight 1990s studies found that blacks or Hispanics with more serious criminal histories were sentenced more severely. Ten studies found that race/ethnic differences were conditioned by type or severity of crimes. Three found that racial disadvantages were greatest in less serious crimes, and six found that racial disadvantages were pronounced in drug offenses. In addition, six studies found that race/ethnicity effects were conditioned by case processing factors. Two studies found that blacks were sentenced more severely if they were detained prior to trial, one found that blacks were sentenced more severely if represented by a public defender rather than a private attorney, and three found that blacks were sentenced more severely if they were convicted by plea rather than trial. Finally, one study found that blacks who victimized whites received more severe sentences than other victim-offender combinations.

These reviews also spelled out directions for further research that they hoped would be undertaken in the ensuing decade. Several of these directions called for further progress on earlier recommendations from the Blumstein et al. (1983) report. Among other directions, these reviews called for (1) investigations of how the effects of race and ethnicity on sentencing vary by social context and over time and how the effects of race and ethnicity might be conditioned by other factors, (2) more investigations of the sentencing of Latinos, (3) research that utilized better measures of defendant socioeconomic status factors and disentangling the effects of socioeconomic status from race and ethnicity, (4) research on how court social and organizational contexts shaped sentencing severity and disparity, (5) investigations of sentencing and disparity in the context of earlier criminal justice (particularly prosecutorial) decisions, and (6) qualitative research that illuminated sentencing processes.

Theoretical Perspectives On Sentencing

Hagan and Bumiller (1983) as well as other contributors to the Blumstein et al. (1983) report noted that at that time there was little theoretical development in the sentencing literature. Spohn (2000, p. 458) also noted that most pre-1990s sentencing studies were based on “an overly simplistic version of conflict theory.” However, the 1990s and 2000s saw the emergence of new theoretical frameworks and the refinement of older theoretical propositions from conflict and labeling theories. These theories seem to be more complementary than competing, and some of them have mutually influenced each other. Below are brief sketches of these theoretical frameworks (readers seeking full treatments should consult the original works cited below).

Individual Cases And Actors

Celesta Albonetti articulated an uncertainty avoidance and causal attribution (1991) perspective on sentencing and court decision making. Albonetti applied insights from organizational theory to argue that sentencing suffers from operating in a context of bounded rationality in that court actors make highly consequential decisions with insufficient information, which produces uncertainty. Albonetti (1991) particularly stressed uncertainty and insufficient information regarding the recidivism risk and rehabilitative potential of offenders. Albonetti drew from attribution theory in social psychology to argue that, as a means of reducing uncertainty, decision makers fall back on attributions about reoffending risk and/or rehabilitation potential that can be linked to race and gender and other social status stereotypes. This can then result in extralegal sentencing disparity connected to these statuses.

Similarly, Farrell and Holmes (1991) presented an interpretive theory of legal decision making, in which they emphasized the situational role of stereotypes linked to defendant social statuses in case processing. Farrell and Holmes (1991) generated ten propositions about the conditional, situation-specific role of status-linked stereotypes for routine and nonroutine cases and defendants. A related idea is the liberation hypothesis which has sometimes been applied to sentencing discretion (Spohn and Cederblom 1991). The liberation hypothesis implies that as the seriousness and/or visibility of the offense or case increases, sanctioning discretion is tightened and legally relevant variables are decisive, leaving little room for extralegal influences. By contrast, in less serious/visible cases, opportunities for discretion are greater and extralegal variables can influence outcomes more than in serious cases.

Because the sentencing guidelines movement of the 1980s transformed the sentencing land-scape, the 1990s saw important treatments of sentencing discretion and guidelines, which involves the management of several dilemmas: between flexible discretion and rule-bound control, between uniformity and individualization, and between centralization and decentralized localism. Joachim Savelsberg (1992) helpfully conceptualized sentencing and sentencing guidelines as an attempt to impose a regime of what founding early sociologist Max Weber called formal rationality onto a traditionally “substantively rational” process. Substantive rationality refers to an individualized decision process governed by criteria that are in service of ideological goals external to the law. The flexibility inherent in substantive rationality, however, permits the possibility of bias, discrimination, and unwarranted disparity.

The focal concerns perspective emphasizes particular kinds of substantively rational criteria at work in sentencing decisions. A recent review and statement of the focal concerns perspective in proposition form can be found in Kramer and Ulmer (2009). The focal concerns perspective argues that court actors’ subjective definitions of offenders and offenses in relation to three focal concerns of punishment – blameworthiness, protection of the community, and practical constraints – determine punishment decisions. The focal concerns perspective argues that both legal and extralegal considerations affect the interpretation and prioritization of focal concerns through local substantive rationality (Kramer and Ulmer 2009). The influence of race, for example, may be conditional on defendant’s gender, age, social class, legally relevant factors, and especially local contexts (see below).

Rational choice approaches have also been applied to sentencing in the times since the 1983 report (Piehl and Bushway 2007). Proponents of a rational choice approach to sentencing research would call for researchers to identify the formal and informal incentive structures of different court actors involved, make theoretical predictions about what sentencing outcomes would look like if actors acted rationally in pursuit of those incentives, and then compare these predictions to real-world data. Actors’ incentives, of course, are strongly influenced by the organizational environments of prosecutors’ offices, bench, and defense bar.

Court Organization And Multilayered Environments

It has long been recognized that sentencing practices varied between jurisdictions, even within states or the federal court system. Myers and Talarico (1987), Eisenstein et al. (1988), Ulmer (1997), and others drew attention to the localization of sentencing. The court community perspective views courts as communities based on participants’ shared workplace; interdependent working relations between key sponsoring agencies such as the prosecutor’s office, judges’ bench, and defense bar; and the court’s relation to its larger sociopolitical environment (Eisenstein et al. 1988; Ulmer 1997). These court communities are said to foster their own locally varying sentencing norms which influence sentencing as least as much as formal policies and legal structures (Ulmer and Kramer 1996).

Interest in social contexts that foster negative racial/ethnic-based stereotypes and perceptions of threat has been fostered by racial threat theory. This theory argues that as minority racial groups grow in size relative to whites, they are likely to develop greater power, economic resources, and political influence in the community and are better able to compete with whites for power. In the context of sentencing, racial group threat theory implies that when perceptions of minority group threat are more pronounced and when courtroom actors perceive particular racial/ ethnic groups as more dangerous or morally disrespectable, such minorities may receive harsher sentences.

Finally, organizational efficiency/maintenance models of sentencing have long been recognized (Dixon 1995; Engen and Steen 2000). In fact, the focal concerns model would also recognize organizational efficiency as a potentially important practical constraint faced by court actors (Kramer and Ulmer 2009). These organizational efficiency model views emphasize leniency for those who plead guilty and avoid time-and resource-intensive trials as an effort by courts to keep cases moving smoothly. Relevant to rational choice theory, an organizational efficiency proposition would suggest that rewarding guilty pleas and punishing trials is an organizationally rational response to the need to move cases efficiently. Furthermore, this differential punishment would be conditioned by caseload pressure – the greater the caseload pressure, the more courts would rely on such costs and incentives.

Research Since 2000

These theoretical developments have been instrumental in five broad and interrelated areas of empirical inquiry discussed below.

Social Contexts And Sentencing

The 2000s saw a burst of studies on contextual effects and variation and how the influence of individual-level factors was conditioned by court or social context factors. Overall, the recent literature on contextual variation in sentencing shows that local variation permeates many aspects of sentencing, both under sentencing guideline jurisdictions and non-guideline jurisdictions. Studies typically find that most sentencing outcome variation exists at the individual level and is most strongly predicted by individual-level factors. However, not only does sentencing severity (and related outcomes such as guideline departures) vary between local courts and their contexts but so too sometimes do the effects of other important legally relevant and extralegal sentencing predictors.

Racial/Ethnic Population Composition

Some of this research has investigated the role of local racial/ethnic composition in conditioning racial and ethnic sentencing disparity, drawing from both racial group threat theory and the focal concerns perspective. Many multilevel sentencing studies find that the effects of race and ethnicity in sentencing decisions do indeed vary significantly across courts. However, results have been decidedly mixed regarding racial threat theory’s ability to explain this variation. That is, race/ethnic effects on sentencing tend to vary across contexts, but not always in ways predicted by racial threat theory. Some studies have found that the percentage of blacks in local populations has been found to increase racial/ethnic disparities in sentencing. Other studies reveal either no support for racial threat or evidence contrary to racial threat hypotheses (see Ulmer 2012).

Local Organizational Constraints

Other research has examined how local practical constraints such as caseloads or local criminal

justice resources (i.e., jail space) affect sentencing, research relevant for the organizational efficiency hypothesis, as well as the focal concerns and court communities’ perspectives. Pennsylvania court caseloads were negatively related to sentencing severity (see in Kramer and Ulmer 2009). Local jail space in Pennsylvania counties affected the probability of incarceration and found that local jail space predicted the choice of county jail versus state prison (Kramer and Ulmer 2009).

Sociopolitical Influences On Sentencing Decisions

Though less common, studies have examined other sociopolitical influences on sentencing, including crime rates, political climate, neighborhood disadvantage, and local religion (see review by Ulmer 2012). Crime rates and broad political climate measures (such as percent Republican voters) have generally not been found to be strong predictors of sentencing patterns or to strongly and consistently condition individual-level predictors (an exception is Johnson 2006). Fearn (2005) and Ulmer et al. (2008) found evidence that local religious contexts may affect sentencing patterns. Fearn (2005) found that prison sentences were more likely in jurisdictions with greater proportions of evangelical Christians. Ulmer et al. (2008) found that local religious homogeneity fostered greater use of incarceration in Pennsylvania. Unlike Fearn (2005), Ulmer et al. (2008) did not find that evangelical Christian prevalence influenced sentencing but rather that local religious homogeneity interacted with percent Republican voters, in that counties that were religiously homogeneous and strongly Republican were most likely to incarcerate offenders.

Court Community Racial/Ethnic Composition

Farrell et al. (2009) studied the effects of federal district court community racial composition on variation in the effects of race on sentencing. They found that district US Attorney’s Office’s black representation was associated with significantly smaller racial disparities in incarceration, and interestingly, greater black Federal Probation Office representation was associated with greater black/white sentencing outcome disparity. In addition, studies have found that greater black representation among county attorneys attenuated local black/white sentencing disparity (see in Ulmer 2012).

Court Personnel

Earlier research had investigated the race and gender of judges on sentencing, and this was reviewed in Spohn (2000). Johnson (2006) examined court contextual and inter-judge variation in sentences in Pennsylvania. He found that black and Hispanic judges sentenced all offenders, and particularly minority offenders, more leniently than white judges. Furthermore, male judges sentenced female offenders more leniently. Studies have also examined interjudge variation in sentencing and also found wide variation between judges in the effects of race, gender, or financial means on their sentences. It has also been found that judges considered legal and extralegal factors quite differently in their sentencing decisions (see in Ulmer 2012).

Conditional Disparity

In addition, a key theme of Spohn’s (2000) and Zatz’s (2000) summaries of the 1990s literature was that the influence of social status factors such as race, ethnicity, and gender was conditional and mutually contingent. Dozens of studies in the 2000s have continued to confirm this insight. Many of these studies are noted above and below in the discussions of research on court contexts, courtroom actors, victim characteristics, and earlier case processing decisions. In sum, there appears to be substantial evidence that the effects of such extralegal social statuses are conditioned by court contextual factors and provocative evidence that disparity varies across individual court community actors. Furthermore, most studies that examine the issue find young black, and to a lesser extent Hispanic, male defendants to be sentenced more severely (see reviews by Mitchell 2005; Ulmer 2012). Also, the effects of defendant social statuses may interact with case processing, offense characteristics, and criminal history.

Victim Characteristics

It should be noted that existing studies that utilize data from sentencing guideline jurisdictions actually implicitly consider victim harm, financial loss, and often victim age and vulnerability. These factors are commonly included in creating guideline offense severity rankings. Thus, the strong effects of offense severity typically found in such studies in part incorporate victim impact and vulnerability. Such research, however, does not tell us about the effects of other specific victim attributes. Curry (2010) found that Texas offenders who victimized females received longer sentences, and females who victimized males received sentences about 10 months shorter than males who victimized females. Curry’s research also found that violent offenders who victimized white and Hispanic females received longer sentences, and Hispanic and black homicide offenders who victimized whites got longer sentences than other combinations. Other studies have uncovered similar findings (see in Ulmer 2012). They found no race of victim/offender combination effects, but found that males who killed females received the longest prison sentences and that females who killed males received shorter sentences than males who killed females. Overall, there is mixed evidence that victim characteristics may matter in noncapital violent crime sentencing.

Sentencing In The Context Of Earlier Case Processing

A comparatively smaller set of studies has examined sentencing as related to earlier case processing events, such guilty pleas versus trial convictions, as well as charging decisions and pretrial release. This research provides some, albeit limited, insight into prosecutorial discretion as well as other joint courtroom workgroup outcomes, such as differentially punishing those convicted by trial relative to those who plead guilty.

Charging Decisions

Other researchers have investigated prosecutors’ charging decisions and their impact on eventual sentencing. Studies have found that the number of indictment charges filed by federal prosecutors significantly increased federal sentence lengths, and decreased the likelihood of substantial assistance or other downward departures. Shermer and Johnson (2010) examined the likelihood of federal prosecutors reducing charges for defendants. They found that while about 12 % of federal cases in their sample involved charge reductions, race/ ethnicity and gender (along with offense severity and criminal history) influenced the likelihood of those charge reductions in drug and violent offenses. These charge reductions, in turn, resulted in lower sentences for those who received them and charge reductions-mediated race/ethnic effects on sentences.

Pretrial Detention/Release

Though not as plentiful as studies of sentencing outcomes, there is a literature focusing on the consequences of these decisions for defendants’ sentencing. Studies have found that defendants subject to pretrial detention were more likely to receive more severe sentences than defendants who had been released before case disposition. Other studies have Spohn examined federal offenders in three district courts and found that both legal and extralegal factors predicted pretrial status and that pretrial status significantly impacted sentencing. These found that race and gender had indirect effects on sentence severity through their effects on pretrial status.

Mandatory Minimums

Sentencing involving mandatory minimums has proved useful for understanding how earlier decisions shape and constrain sentencing choices. Bjerk (2005) found that prosecutors used their charge reduction discretion to circumvent three strikes mandatories for some defendants. He found that such circumvention of three strikes mandatory minimums was moderately less likely to occur for men, Hispanics, and to a lesser extent, blacks. Multilevel analyses of prosecutorial discretion in applying mandatory minimums among mandatory-eligible offenders sentenced for drug crimes or as “three strikes” offenders (see in Kramer and Ulmer 2009). They found that prosecutors’ decisions to apply mandatory minimums were significantly affected by mode of conviction (negotiated guilty pleas greatly assisted defendants in avoiding mandatories), the type and characteristics of offenses and guideline sentence recommendations (the greater the difference between the mandatory and the applicable guideline sentence, the less likely the mandatory was applied), prior record, and gender. In addition, Hispanic males were substantially more likely to receive mandatory minimums.

Federal Substantial Assistance Departure Motions

Some studies have examined prosecutorial discretion in decisions to file motions for substantial assistance guideline departures in federal court crack and powder cocaine sentences in 2000. These found that the likelihood of substantial assistance motions increased with offense severity and criminal history and that having multiple concurrent charges reduced the likelihood of such motions for crack cocaine cases. In powder cocaine cases, black and Hispanic males had the lowest odds of receiving substantial assistance departures, while white females and males had the greatest likelihoods. The results were similar for crack cocaine cases, except that Hispanic females had the greatest odds of substantial assistance departures.

In addition, Johnson et al. (2008) examined inter-district variations in the application of both substantial assistance and other downward departures among a variety of offense types in federal sentences from 1997 to 2000. Findings indicated considerable between-district variation in the probability of these prosecutor-initiated substantial assistance departures. This variation was explained, in part, by organizational court contexts such as caseload pressures and by environmental considerations such as the racial composition of the district.

Spohn and Fornango (2009) examined variation between federal prosecutors in three districts in their likelihood of moving for substantial assistance departures. They found substantial inter-prosecutor variation in the likelihood of substantial assistance departures, net of the influence of individual case and defendant characteristics. Specifically, about 24 % of the variation between prosecutors in the likelihood of substantial assistance departures was unaccounted for by case or defendant factors, and even more between-prosecutor variation was unexplained in nondrug cases.

Mode Of Conviction

Finally, several studies have examined how mode of conviction affects sentencing; that is, sentencing differences between types of guilty pleas and types trials. This research exhibits some limitations in that studies typically use data on convicted offenders only, which presents issues of selection and potential missing-variable bias absent data on the likelihood of acquittal (see Bushway and Piehl 2007). Still, one overarching lesson from the recent studies below is that sentencing guidelines seem to provide a discretionary framework within which to differentially reward guilty pleas and punish trials.

Some studies have found that mode of conviction moderated the role of race/ethnicity in predicting guideline departures, with blacks and Hispanics experiencing different odds of receiving downward or upward departures, depending on their modes of conviction. Studies have looked at trial penalties for serious violent offenders and less serious offenders using hierarchical models with cases sentenced under Pennsylvania’s guidelines (Kramer and Ulmer 2009). They found that defendants were substantially penalized if they were convicted by trial relative to those with negotiated or open guilty pleas. Furthermore, this jury trial penalty varied depending on the seriousness and type of offense (more severe offenses had lesser trial penalties), defendant criminal history (offenders with more substantial criminal histories actually experienced less of a trial penalty), race (blacks experienced greater trial penalties) and court contextual characteristics such as court community size (larger trial penalties in larger courts), local violent crime rates (the higher the crime rate, the greater the trial penalties), and the size of local black populations (greater trial penalties in counties with larger black populations). Studies have also found that federal trial penalties could not be fully explained by US Sentencing Guideline factors that were relevant to mode of conviction. They also found that higher district court caseload pressure was associated with greater trial penalties, while higher district trial rates were associated with lesser trial penalties (see in Ulmer 2012).

New Methodological Extensions

The past decade has seen the application of new statistical methods to sentencing research questions, and several useful quantitative modeling alternatives now confront sentencing researchers. Bushway et al. (2007) present a very useful discussion of the merits and demerits of two-part models (modeling incarceration and sentence length separately), tobit, and Heckman two-step corrections with ordinary least squares regression in addressing problems of censoring and/or selection surrounding the incarceration and sentence length decisions. Several researchers have also demonstrated the usefulness of using multinomial logistic regression to predict different types of incarceration, such as county jail versus state prison, either in an individual level (see review in Ulmer 2012). In addition, Britt (2009) proposes quantile regression as an interesting alternative for assessing variation in the effects of predictors of interest (legally relevant, extralegal, case processing, etc.) across the distribution of sentence length/severity. That is, the quantile regression approach allows the researcher to separate the sentence length distribution into quantiles and examine how the strength of predictors’ effects varies across those quantiles. Finally, propensity score methods appear to be a promising alternative for examining sentencing disparity in a way that attempts to create balanced, comparable samples of offenders that differ only on a “treatment” or characteristic of interest (e.g., race or mode of conviction). This therefore allows the construction of useful counterfactuals, for example, “what would the sentence be if this case involved a white rather than a black defendant.”

The Need For More International Research

Most sentencing research is limited to the contemporary North American – particularly the US – context. However, particularly useful overviews of the comparatively small amount of international literature on sentencing disparity that does exist can be found in Tonry and Frase (2001). Also, Johnson et al. (2010) studied 1,613 Dutch homicide offenses from 1993 to 2004 and found that homicide offenders that victimized youth under 18, elderly people, women, and Dutch (vs. foreign) victims were sentenced more severely than those victimizing other types of victims. Some other suggestive information on ethnic disparity comes from Canada and Australia (see reviews in Tonry and Frase 2001; Dawson 2006).

Comparatively little research exists on sentencing in non-Western contexts, particularly, in Asian countries, which are growing in global prominence. Lu and Kelly (2008) provide a useful summary of research on courts and sentencing in China. Two studies focus on sentencing in South Korea, a country which very recently adopted sentencing guidelines. These found that female drug offenders were sentenced more leniently than their male counterparts, though this gender difference disappeared among those with prior criminal records. Also, research has found that legal factors connected to the offense and past criminal behavior primarily determined the length of sentences for Korean marijuana and methamphetamine offenders but that males and older offenders received longer sentences. They also found that admitting guilt in court resulted in shorter sentences (see review in Ulmer 2012).

Finally, a great deal of research has been done on sentencing under sentencing guidelines, particularly, the US Sentencing Guidelines, and state guideline systems in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Washington, and to a lesser extent Florida (see reviews by Spohn 2000; Zatz 2000; Kramer and Ulmer 2009; Ulmer 2012). More recently, research has examined the extent to which US federal sentencing and disparity changed in the wake of important Supreme Court decisions that rendered the federal guidelines advisory (see Ulmer et al. 2011). This research is mixed regarding whether racial disparity has increased under the advisory guidelines – the US Sentencing Commission’s analyses argue that racial disparity increased, but independent researchers have disputed their findings, arguing that overall, the data do not support the notion that advisory guidelines have aggravated racial disparity (see Ulmer et al. 2011). Research has examined sentencing disparity, patterns, and trends within guideline systems, but relatively little research has compared differences in sentencing disparity between guideline systems (Engen 2009). Very little research has examined differences in sentencing between guideline and non-guideline jurisdictions, likely because of the lesser availability of comparable sentencing data from non-guideline systems and because of the methodological difficulties of comparing measures of key variables such as offense severity and criminal history across guideline and non-guideline contexts.

In sum, since 2000, research has made some progress on certain issues identified by the Blumstein et al. (1983) report and the Spohn (2000) and Zatz (2000) reviews. For example, in many sentencing studies published since 2000, researchers have moved beyond examining the traditional incarceration and length to look at more refined outcomes, such as distinctions between types of incarceration (e.g., probation, county jail, state prison). Also, studies have examined the imposition of mandatory minimums, which are tightly linked to prosecutorial discretion, adjudication waivers, first-time offender waivers, and special sex offender sanctions, and different types of sentencing guideline departures (see Ulmer 2012). Further, research in the 2000s generally heeded the call to include Hispanic defendants, and many, if not most, of the recent studies on US racial sentencing disparity include black, white, and Hispanic comparisons. Other directions, such as examining sentencing in the context of preconviction decisions and prosecutorial discretion, as well as research on sentencing in non-US and non-Western contexts, have seen comparatively less progress.


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