Disparities in Criminal Sentencing and Prosecutive Practices in Federal District Courts

Gao ID: 105731 April 24, 1978

Disparate treatment in the criminal justice system results from the broad discretion given to judges, U.S. attorneys, and law enforcement and parole officials. Disparity is not limited to the sentencing process but is a problem that exists throughout the federal justice system from arrest through parole. Although these disparities do exist in criminal prosecutions and sentences and are caused, in large part, by the discretion exercised by U.S. attorneys and district judges, they are not readily apparent because of the lack of program monitoring and reporting. In criminal sentencing, disparity exists in three areas when judges exercise discretion in: (1) the decision to incarcerate a convicted defendant; (2) the length of sentence imposed on an offender; and (3) the use of sentencing provisions that affect the time a defendant must serve before being considered for parole. The discretion exercised by prosecutors also results in disparate treatment. U.S. attorneys have the authority to prosecute or decline prosecution, determine the specific offense to be prosecuted, and reduce charges or plea bargain. As a result, U.S. attorneys can control, in part, the possibility of the punishment and broaden or narrow the range of sentence to be imposed. A comprehensive approach is needed to reduce unjustified disparity.

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