Discretion and Disparity under Sentencing Guidelines Revisited: The Interrelationship between Structured Sentencing Alternatives and Guideline Decision-making

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We argue that the reasons court actors conform to or depart from sentencing guideline recommendations likely vary depending on whether the decision involves an alternative sanction or incarceration and that these reasons may have consequences for ethnoracial disparities in the sentencing of defendants and how these disparities are understood.


We use recent (2012–2016) Pennsylvania sentencing data to examine (1) the relationship between defendant race/ethnicity and court actors’ decisions to depart downward and upward from the guidelines and (2) whether such relationships vary depending on whether they involve an alternative sanction, namely intermediate punishments (IPs).


We find that the association of defendant race/ethnicity with decisions to conform to the guidelines or to depart is greatly impacted by whether the sentence involves an IP. Blacks and, to a lesser extent, Latinos experienced greater disadvantage in guideline decision-making, whether conformity or departures, when the sentence involved an IP.


Results suggest that the integration of IP into guideline systems may have (1) mobilized ethnoracial disparities in sentencing, (2) focused the location of sentencing disparities to sentences involving IP, and (3) changed the applicability of common interpretations of guideline decisions and disparities in their imposition.