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Examining Prosecutorial Discretion in Federal Criminal Cases

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Awardee County
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)
Original Solicitation

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2015, $39,823)

Statement of the Problem: The federal court system is tasked with the goals of uniformity and fairness in case processing. Recent swift and pronounced increases in the federal caseload have strained federal resources and changed the nature and composition of the federal criminal caseload. In particular, immigration cases have joined narcotics offenses as the most common types of cases proceeded through federal court. Recent Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Booker, Gall, & Kimbrough) have allowed greater discretion for courtroom actors to depart from sentencing guidelines, and the use of prosecutorial-initiated departures have also increased in recent years. These significant changes in the federal caseload have implications not only for case processing, but also for decision-making within the system. Prosecutorial decisions, in particular, are highly discretionary, but largely invisible and unreviewable; as a result, we know relatively little about the factors that influence the decisions that prosecutors make in criminal cases.
Subjects: N/A
Partnerships: N/A
Research Design and Methods: This secondary data project aims to directly address the changes in the nature and characteristics of cases prosecuted in the federal courts, trends in sentencing, analyses of arrest and prosecution of immigration cases, sentencing disparities, and prosecutorial discretion and downgrade of initial charges at adjudication. The current study will attempt to identify the correlates associated with the prosecutor's decision to proceed with charges against an individual arrested for a federal offense, document the similarities and/or differences between the original arresting offense and the prosecutor's actions, the use of departures in these cases, whether these patterns are consistent across case types, and investigate if these processes are uniform across federal districts. Data from 2000 to 2010 will be analyzed to address these issues and will include the United States Marshals Service (USMS) arrest database, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) databases on prosecutorial activity, and the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) database of all federal case processing.
Analysis: Descriptives and inferential statistics will be calculated. Multilevel modeling will be used to reflect the nested nature of these data.
Products, Reports, and Data Archiving: Research findings will be disseminated to both practitioner and academic audiences. Electronic summary reports will be created, NIJ required reports will be submitted, and multiple peer-reviewed manuscripts are planned. All syntax used for data manipulation, variable creation, and analyses will be submitted at the conclusion of the project. All datasets will also be archived according to NIJ protocols.

This project contains a research and/or development component, as defined in applicable law.


Date Created: September 24, 2015