Judicial Discretion and (Un)equal Access: A Systematic Study of Motions to Reduce Criminal Sentences in Rhode Island Superior Court (1998–2003)


  • The authors thank Wendy Schiller, Eddie Miller, Tracy Breton, David Rindskopf, Jay Verkuilen, Juan Battle, and the anonymous reviewers and editors of JELS for their invaluable advice and assistance; Arthi Krishnaswami for the design of the tables and figures in this article; Wendy Imondi and all the staff of the Rhode Island Judicial Records Center; and our research assistants Sarah Hirschfeld-Sussman, Jessica Huey, Bailey Langner, Jessica Maniff, Robert Powers, Jacquelyn Rudis, and Owen Washburn.

Laura Braslow, City University of New York Graduate Center, Department of Sociology, 365 5th Ave., Rm. 6112.04, New York, NY 10016; email: LBraslow@gc.cuny.edu. Braslow is a doctoral student in sociology; Cheit is Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University and an inactive member of the California Bar.


Most jurisdictions allow criminal defendants to bring postconviction sentence reduction or modification motions, asking that the original sentencing judge reconsider legal sentences that they initially imposed. The ability to reconsider sentences could be an avenue for mercy, but the virtually unfettered discretion given to judges under these rules could also be an invitation to abuse, or a mechanism for back-door sentencing. This study seeks to empirically examine the practice of sentence reduction in the Rhode Island superior court system. Based on a universe sample of all cases where motions to reduce sentence were brought over a five-year period, this study utilizes multivariate models to isolate the determinants of motion outcomes. The study finds that a range of variables influence the outcome of sentence reduction motions, but regression analysis finds that, holding all else equal, the individual judges themselves are the most significant factor determining whether motions are granted or denied. This conclusion raises a number of questions relative to equal access to postconviction relief and equal treatment of criminal defendants in the context of judicial discretion.