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.