The federal criminal justice system applies a single set of federal statutes and identical rules of procedure in a variety of local district jurisdictions. It is an underexplored research setting rich with potential to advance our theoretical understanding of how important sociological and political processes work. In particular, the sentencing and case processing practices of federal district courts are governed by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which are in part supposed to impose uniformity and predictability in federal criminal sentencing. Guided by a processual order perspective that views courts as communities with their own distinct organizational culture, practices, and relationships, I explore the localized meaning and uses of key provisions of the sentencing guidelines, such as guideline departures for "substantial assistance" to law enforcement, sentence reductions for "acceptance of responsibility," and the role of federal probation presentence reports. Data for this study come from field interviews with federal prosecutors, judges, public and private defense attorneys, and probation officers in four U.S. District Courts. I supplement these interview data with quantitative sentencing data that show substantial variation in criminal punishment between these four courts. I argue that federal criminal courts, like state courts, are best conceptualized as communities with distinctive processual orders.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Social Psychology
- Sociology and Political Science
- Social Sciences(all)