Trial penalties in federal sentencing: Extra-Guidelines factors and district variation

Jeffery T. Ulmer, James Eisenstein, Brian D. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

125 Scopus citations


The guarantee of the right to a jury trial lies at the heart of the principles that underlie the American criminal justice system's commitment to due process of law. We investigate the differential sentencing of those who plead guilty and those convicted by trial in U.S. District Courts. We first investigate how much of any federal plea/trial sentencing differences are accounted for by substantial assistance to law enforcement, acceptance of responsibility, obstruction of justice, and other Guideline departures. Second, we investigate how such differences vary according to offense and defendant characteristics, as well as court caseloads and trial rates. We use federal sentencing data for fiscal years 2000-02, along with aggregate data on federal district court caseload features. We find that meaningful trial penalties exist after accounting for Guidelines-based rationales for differentially sentencing those convicted by guilty plea versus trial. Higher district court caseload pressure is associated with greater trial penalties, while higher district trial rates are associated with lesser trial penalties. In addition, trial penalties are lower for those with more substantial criminal histories, and black men. Trial penalties proportionately increase, however, as Guideline minimum sentencing recommendations increase. We also supplement our analysis with interview and survey data from federal district court participants, which provide insights into the plea reward/trial penalty process, and also suggest important dimensions of federal court trial penalties that we cannot measure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)560-592
Number of pages33
JournalJustice Quarterly
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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