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Judicial Discretion and Sentencing Outcomes - Incorporating Data from the Courtroom

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Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2005, $160,079)

Case Law in Wisconsin emphasizes judicial discretion and individualized sentencing. Accordingly, the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission's sentencing guidelines worksheets collect information on the factors that influence a judge's decision. This data provide a unique opportunity to include both objective variables, details about the offense, the defendant, the geographic context, and variables that approximate the subjective factors that judges take into account in reaching their decisions. This project blends administrative data from the Wisconsin court system and Department of Corrections with case factors recorded on the Commission's Sentencing Guidelines Worksheets. It will control for the offense and defendant variables traditionally used in the research, to determine if any of these "soft" case factors have an effect on the exercise of judicial discretion and ultimately on sentencing outcomes. Using the merged data set, the research team will employ a range of analytical techniques and presentation formats, ranging from simple, descriptive statistics to multivariate analyses that replicate and expand on those developed in the relevant literature. It will begin with offense-specific analysis that connects worksheets to sentencing data compiled in the integrated sentencing database. The analysis will begin with simple summary statistics and cross-tabulations and move on to use of bivariate techniques such as analysis of variance with sentence length as the dependent variable and specific factors or combinations of factors from the worksheets as the independent variable. Multivariate analyses will also be incorporated in the study using two different dependent variables: 1) the judges' determination of offender risk and offense severity and 2) the actual sentencing outcome. This study has implications for both policy and practice. It will fill some key gaps in the national sentencing research and will allow the Sentencing Commission to the opportunity to present the findings to practitioners. The judges hearing felony cases in Wisconsin will immediately benefit from the increased information they will have on hand at sentencing.

Date Created: March 7, 2005