Why do judges depart? A review of reasons for judicial departures in federal sentencing

Kimberly Kaiser, Cassia Spohn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Over the past decade, scholars have produced a fairly large body of research evaluating the factors that predict the use of judicial departures following the Booker/Gall Supreme Court decisions, which transformed the guidelines from presumptive to advisory. With few exceptions, studies reveal that these decisions have not led to an increase in unwarranted disparities. Less is known, however, about the factors that motivate judges to impose sentences that are more punitive or more lenient than those specified by the guidelines. The purpose of this research note is to provide a comprehensive empirical analysis of the reasons federal judges give for downward and upward departures and to identify the themes that animate these decisions. We use 2013 federal sentencing data to identify six themes found in the reasons judges give for departing from the presumptive sentence. We find that judges' explanations reflect their individual philosophies of punishment, their evaluations of the defendant, the victim and the offense, their attempts to correct what they view as problematic guideline issues, and/or their concerns about various court and correctional contexts and constraints. The results of our study provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the factors federal judges consider as they attempt to tailor sentences to fit offenders and their crimes. The results of our study enhance understanding of how judges interpret sentencing guideline policies. We discuss the implications of these findings for theory and policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)44-62
Number of pages19
JournalCriminology, Criminal Justice, Law and Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • Judicial decision-making
  • Sentencing
  • Sentencing departures

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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