Sentencing disparity and departures from guidelines

John H. Kramer, Jeffrey Todd Ulmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Unwarranted sentencing disparity, a long-standing concern for sociologists studying criminal sentencing, helped to stimulate reforms of sentencing such as sentencing guidelines. Guidelines, however, do not assure the elimination or even the reduction of sentencing disparity. Courts have the discretion to deviate from guideline recommendations, and these departures become a potential source of unwarranted disparity. Therefore we examine five years of recent sentencing data from Pennsylvania, focusing on the degree to which sentences that depart from the state's guideline recommendations involve extralegal differences. We find that legally prescribed factors such as offense type/severity and criminal history are the primary predictors of departure decisions, but that departures from guidelines are also the locus of significant extralegal differences involving gender, race, and mode of conviction (guilty plea vs trial). We conclude by discussing the dilemmas these extralegal differences present for sentencing reform, and their theoretical implications for understanding court decision-making processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)80-105
Number of pages26
JournalJustice Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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