Organizational Conformity and Punishment: Federal Court Communities and Judge-Initiated Guidelines Departures

Ulmer, Jeffery T., Ph.D, Johnson, Brian D., Ph.D | January 1, 2017

The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines represent a uniform set of formal rules that are implemented across a broad range of diverse social contexts. Drawing from neo-institutional theory and kindred perspectives on criminal courts, we argue that the federal courts represent an organizational field in which local influences play a key role in conformity to institutional rules. We use unique survey data from federal judges, aggregated to the district court level and combined with individual-level federal sentencing data, to examine hierarchical models of judicial departures from the Guidelines. Our analysis includes more proximate measures of court community culture than prior research. We find that the collective views of federal judges, including their perceptions of the degree of regulative constraint posed by the Guidelines, as well as the extent to which the Guidelines are normatively and morally legitimate, are intimately related to variation in judicial Guidelines departures across district courts.