The John M. Olin Center

Paper Abstract

Untitled Document

47. Crystal S. Yang, Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing, 11/2012.

Abstract: The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants. This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005). Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more compared to their white counterparts, a 4% increase in average sentence length and almost doubling of the racial gap. Racial disparities appear after periods of more deferential appellate review, suggesting that judges are particularly responsive to changes in the likelihood of appellate reversal. To further identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants. Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by more experienced judges. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.