Court communities under sentencing guidelines: Dilemmas of formal rationality and sentencing disparity

Jeffery T. Ulmer, John H. Kramer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

193 Scopus citations

Abstract

Efforts to structure sentencing through guidelines involve a fundamental dilemma for the sociology of law - guidelines attempt to emphasize formal rationality and uniformity (Savelsberg, 1992) while allowing discretion to tailor sentences to fit situations and characteristics of individual defendants when courts deem it warranted (substantive rationality). This exercise of substantive rationality in sentencing based on "extralegal" criteria deemed relevant by local court actors risks the kind of unwarranted disparity that guidelines were intended to reduce. We view local courts as arenas in which two sets of sentencing standards meet - formal rational ones articulated by guidelines vs. substantive, extralegal criteria deemed relevant by local court actors. We use statistical and qualitative data from Pennsylvania, a state whose courts have operated under sentencing guidelines for over a decade. Our analysis examines extralegal differences in three county courts' sentencing outcomes, and then documents ways in which substantive rational sentencing criteria are intertwined with defendants' exercise of their right to trial and their race and gender.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)383-408
Number of pages26
JournalCriminology
Volume34
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law

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