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Judicial Discretion and Sentencing Outcomes: Incorporating Data from the Courtroom

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2008
169 pages
This study examined the impact of various sentencing factors (65 elements related to case characteristics, offender characteristics, risk factors, and other related factors) on judicial decisions in Wisconsin.
Generally, women received fewer and shorter prison sentences than men; prison rate and sentence length increased with criminal history, which increased with age; and Black and Hispanic offenders proportionally received more and longer prison sentences, largely because White offenders received more nonprison sentences. The study found that few, if any, factors consistently predicted sentencing outcome. Sentence types and lengths were highly dependent on the context of the case, not the specific offense, offender characteristics (race, age, and gender), or geographic location of the crime. In addition, the data show that Wisconsin judges, who are virtually unrestricted in their discretion, regularly impose 10 “standard” sentences. These preferred sentence lengths account for 88 percent of the nonprobation felony sentences. These standard prison sentences ranged from 1 year to 10 years. The study examined detailed sentencing guidelines worksheets, which were first introduced in Wisconsin in 2003 as part of truth-in-sentencing legislation, which replaced the State’s conventional indeterminate sentencing system with a new determinate system that separates prison sentences into two parts: confinement and extended supervision. Due to the voluntary nature of sentencing guidelines in Wisconsin, judges are neither required to follow the suggested guidelines nor submit completed worksheets. The first analysis, sentencing factors, examined 2,745 sentencing guidelines worksheets submitted between February 2003 and September 2006. The second analysis, conventional number preferences, used 23,000 nonprobation felony sentencing decisions, in order to examine the extent to which number preferences (number of years in sentence length) determined the distribution of prison and extended supervision sentence lengths. 17 tables, 26 figures, 81-item bibliography, and appended supplementary data and sentencing guidelines worksheets

Date Published: June 1, 2008