Faculty Publications


Sentencing guidelines and racial disparity across time: Pennsylvania prison sentences in 1977, 1983, 1992, and 1993

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Social Science Quarterly





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An important goal of criminal sentencing guidelines is the elimination of unwarranted disparities in felony prison sentences. However, most analyses of sentencing guidelines do not include pre-and post-guideline comparisons of sentencing outcomes. Therefore, the goal of this study is to analyze pre-and post-guideline felony sanctions in Pennsylvania to evaluate the long-term effects of the guidelines on racial inequalities in prison sentences. Methods. Ordinary least squares multiple regression is used to analyze the influence of defendants' race on length of imprisonment while controlling for legally relevant variables and demographic factors. To assess long-term effects, separate regression models were estimated for pre-guideline sentences in 1977 and post-guideline sentences during 1983, 1992, and 1993. Results. Our analysis demonstrates that during the first year of implementation, Pennsylvania's sentencing guidelines did not negate the direct effect of defendants' race on the length of felony prison sentences. By 1992, however, racial disparity in felony prison terms had been reduced to a negligible amount despite a considerable increase in the average length of imprisonment visited on convicted felons. This outcome was achieved with relatively little intrusion into the decision-making discretion of felony court judges. Conclusions. Sentencing guidelines that constrain only minimum sentencing decisions are an effective tool for eliminating racial disparity in felony prison sentences despite substantial increases in the average length of imprisonment imposed against felony defendants.

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