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Sentencing Guidelines and Judicial Discretion: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Human Calculation Errors


  • The research described herein was supported under an award from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. We thank David Soule and Stacy Najaka of the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy for their extraordinary cooperation and support. We also thank Robin Lyles, Richard Tamberino, and Rebecca Gowen of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for assistance with data collection. For helpful comments, the authors thank William Evans, R. Richard Geddes, Peter Reuter, Hilary Sigman, Jeffrey Smith, Charles Wellford, and participants at workshops at Cornell University, the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, Syracuse University, the University of Virginia, and the CSWEP Workshop. Points of view in the document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Justice, the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, or their constituent agencies.

Emily Owens, College of Human Ecology, 137 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853; email: Bushway is Associate Professor, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, State University of New York; Owens is Assistant Professor, Department of Policy and Management, Cornell University; Piehl is Associate Professor, Department of Economics and Program in Criminal Justice, Rutgers University.


The extent to which rules set by the legislature bind or influence decisions regarding sentence length is central to institutional design and to determining the practical impact of any proposed reform regarding criminal punishment. However, it is generally difficult to identify empirically the impact of sentencing recommendations because court actors may have preferences that are correlated with those outlined in the guidelines. In this article, we take advantage of a new source of identification to study how government actors interact and make decisions in the criminal sentencing process. We identify instances in the Maryland circuit court in which the case facts are not consistent with the final sentence recommendation—inconsistencies that appear to be the result of human error and exogenous to the preferences of downstream actors. We find that even an advisory guidelines system like the one in Maryland has a direct impact on judicial decision making in cases involving drugs and violent crimes. Judges appear eager to go along with an erroneous lesser sentence for violent offenses. In contrast, judges appear to discount mistakes that are too high. This asymmetry does not occur for property and drug offenses that are simpler and more frequently encountered. More generally, experience matters. Error rates are lower for more frequently occurring offense types and lower for those court professionals who complete more of the sentencing worksheets. The net effect of sentencing guidelines on time served appears to be small because parole boards counteract the remaining influence of the guidelines.