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Mandatory Sentencing and Racial Disparity: Assessing the Role of Prosecutors and the Effects of Booker

Publication Abstract

Starr, Sonja B., and M.M. Rehavi. 2013. "Mandatory Sentencing and Racial Disparity: Assessing the Role of Prosecutors and the Effects of Booker." Yale Law Journal, 123(1): 2-80.

This Article presents new empirical evidence concerning the effects of United States v. Booker, which loosened the formerly mandatory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, on racial disparities in federal criminal cases. Two serious limitations pervade existing empirical literature on sentencing disparities. First, studies focus on sentencing in isolation, controlling for the "presumptive sentence" or similar measures that themselves result from discretionary charging, plea-bargaining, and fact-finding processes. Any disparities in these. earlier processes are excluded from the resulting sentence-disparity estimates. Our research has shown that this exclusion matters: pre-sentencing decision-making can have substantial sentence-disparity consequences. Second, existing studies have used loose causal inference methods that fail to disentangle the effects of sentencing-law changes, such as Booker, from surrounding events and trends.

In contrast, we use a dataset that traces cases from arrest to sentencing, allowing us to assess Booker's effects on disparities in charging, plea-bargaining, and fact-finding, as well as sentencing. We disentangle background trends by using a rigorous regression discontinuity-style design. Contrary to other studies (and in particular, the dramatic recent claims of the U.S. Sentencing Commission), we find no evidence that racial disparity has increased since Booker, much less because of Booker. Unexplained racial disparity remains persistent, but does not appear to have increased following the expansion of judicial discretion.

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