Lawlessness in the federal sentencing process: A test for uniformity and consistency in sentence outcomes

Amy L. Anderson, Cassia Spohn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

36 Scopus citations


One of the important goals of the federal sentencing guidelines was to reduce inter-judge disparity in sentencing. In this paper, we test the assumption that structuring discretion produced uniformity in federal sentencing and consistency in the process by which judges arrive at the appropriate sentence. We also examine whether background characteristics of judges affect the sentences they impose on similarly situated offenders. We used hierarchical linear modeling, nesting the offenders in the judges that sentenced them in order to examine the sentencing decisions of federal judges in three U.S. District Courts. While we found that significant variation between judges in sentencing is largely accounted for by our level 1 characteristics, we also found that judges arrive at decisions regarding the appropriate sentence in different ways, by attaching differential weights to several of the legally relevant case characteristics and legally irrelevant offender characteristics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)362-393
Number of pages32
JournalJustice Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2010



  • Judges
  • Multilevel modeling
  • Sentencing
  • Sentencing guidelines

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law

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