The social context of guidelines circumvention: The case of federal district courts

Brian D. Johnson, Jeffery T. Ulmer, John H. Kramer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

229 Scopus citations


Recent scholarship on criminal punishments increasingly highlights the importance of courtroom social contexts. Combining recent data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (FY1997-2000) with aggregate data on federal districts, the current study examines interdistrict variations in the application of downward departures from the federal sentencing guidelines. Findings indicate that substantial variation exists in the probability of both prosecutor-initiated substantial assistance departures and judge-initiated downward departures. This variation is accounted for, in part, by organizational court contexts, such as caseload pressures, and by environmental considerations, such as the racial composition of the district. Additional evidence suggests that individual trial penalties and race disparities are conditioned by aggregate court contexts. Drawing on interviews with federal justice personnel, this article concludes with a discussion of future directions for research on federal guidelines departures. Part of the glory of the federal that you've got this one big organization, but it can be molded to different needs...- An assistant U.S. attorney -

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)737-783
Number of pages47
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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