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Have Federal Judges Changed Their Sentencing Practices? The Shaky Empirical Foundations of the Feeney Amendment

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The Feeney Amendment to the PROTECT Act of 2003 restricted judicial discretion to make downward departures. Supporters of the Amendment argued that federal district court judges were increasingly departing below the ranges specified in the Sentencing Guidelines, reducing sentences and increasing sentencing disparities. Using data on all federal criminal sentences between 1993 and 2001, this article argues that federal sentencing practices did not change appreciably over the relevant time period. First, while the rate of downward departures increased, much of the increase can be explained by a number of potentially relevant variables such as type of offense, the offense level, district of sentencing, and offender characteristics. Second, even though downward departures were more frequent, average total prison sentences hardly changed. Third, there is no evidence that the increasing number of Democratic appointees on the federal district court bench affected average prison sentences or the rate of downward departures. Finally, the influence of Guidelines factors on prison sentences has remained constant.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2005-03-01

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