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Does the Use of Formal Guidelines for Dispositional Decision-Making Reduce Disproportionate Minority Contact?

Principal Investigator

Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology and Social Behavior
University of California, Irvine  



It has been suggested that the implementation of formal guidelines for sentencing juvenile offenders will reduce disproportionate minority contact (DMC) by limiting opportunities for bias to affect decision-making. If all offenders who have identical histories and committing offenses are required to be given identical dispositions, racial disparities attributable to biased decision-making should be reduced.  Decision-making guidelines often take the form of a grid, or matrix, in which the recommended disposition is based on the combination of a committing offense and the offender's prior convictions. We propose to examine racial disparities in sentencing decisions in Washington and assess the following question: Are off-grid decisions more, less, or equally likely to be applied to offenders from different racial groups after taking into account differences in offenses, offense history, and background characteristics?

Purpose for the Research

Even in the presence of formal guidelines for dispositional decision-making, opportunities for racial disparities in sentencing may exist because even the most rigid guidelines typically have a range of dispositional decisions associated with a particular offense and offense history combination. Thus, although a particular combination (e.g., simple assault by a first offender) may have a specific recommended disposition, the decision-maker is given the opportunity to veer from this disposition in light of extenuating or aggravating circumstances. Judgments about whether the circumstances of a case warrant making what is referred to as an "off-matrix" or "off-grid" recommendation inject discretion into a system that putatively minimizes it, and this provides opportunity for DMC to creep into a decision-making process that is designed to be free of bias. This study examines whether there are race/ethnic differences within grid cell ranges for sentences (i.e., do minorities get longer sentence lengths) and whether "off-grid" decisions contribute to racial disparities in placements.

The use of guidelines is not common among juveniles. At present, Washington is the only state using a sentencing guideline system for juveniles (instituted in 1977 and modified in 1997).  Although Washington is currently the only state using such a system, an analysis of whether it has reduced (or inadvertently contributed to) DMC will be informative to other states searching for ways to make their dispositional decision-making less likely to be tainted by racial bias. Because Washington is the only state using a grid for sentencing juveniles, this will be the only location for this project.

Study Methodology

This project will rely on administrative data for as long a time period as available. Based on previous reports, the requisite information appears available. Data to be gathered from administrative records include number of juvenile cases sentenced in the guideline system, information on youth's prior offending, demographic characteristics of all such youth (including race, gender, age, SES, family structure and other data as available and deemed useful for analysis), as is information regarding guideline departures. Our analysis will include variables that are supposed to influence decision-making (e.g., criminal history) and those that are not (e.g., family structure). Because the guidelines have been revised, we will require careful modeling of changes to the grid over time.

What are the benefits to participating?

The original goal of most guidelines was to limit discretion and make decision-making more uniform and fairer with respect to offenders, by focusing on criminal history and current offense information. It is believed that the guideline implementation has reduced some racial/ethnic disparity, but there is no evidence on this for the juvenile guidelines. Our study will be the first empirical evidence documenting whether the use of these guidelines has reduced or eliminated racial/ethnic disparity among juvenile offenders. This is important because although Washington is currently the only state using juvenile guidelines, an analysis of whether it has reduced DMC will be informative to the state as a way to examine if decisions being made under the guidelines are working as intended, and especially to other states that are currently searching for ways to make their dispositional decision-making less likely to be tainted by racial/ethnic bias.

If we find that decisions being made under the guidelines are race/ethnic-neutral and have either reduced disparity, then this would suggest very little change in the Washington decision-making criteria, and other states may wish to begin their adoption of such guidelines. If we find that racial/ethnic disparities either increased and/or emerged after the adoption of the guidelines, then this would suggest that we need to unpack the sources of this disparity and provide recommendations for changes. It will also be important to educate and train judges on decision-making patterns, how they have adversely influence minority youth, and how fairer decisions can be made by adhering to the guidelines and not using race/ethnicity in guideline departures.

Supported by

Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.