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Review 3 of "Use of the federal guidelines while maneuvering to achieve 'justice': A non-participant observational study of judicial sentencing discretion in illegal reentry cases in a U.S. District Court"

Published onOct 08, 2020
Review 3 of "Use of the federal guidelines while maneuvering to achieve 'justice': A non-participant observational study of judicial sentencing discretion in illegal reentry cases in a U.S. District Court"

Vote: Reject


This study examines an important topic and contributes a valuable methodological approach. Examining judicial discretion using non-participant observational data for illegal reentry cases provides a worthy analysis. There is plenty of potential in the data and focus of the study.  There are also a number of issues in the current state of the manuscript which I found could be improved upon. 

I vote for a reject because the manuscript requires significant changes to prepare for publication in JQJCJ.  There is little to no theoretical application, the literature review is incomplete, and the organization needs editing in order to communicate the contributions this research can make.

The findings are given in full detail which illuminates the strength of qualitative work.  Compared with the rather formulaic design of much criminological articles, this type of analysis demands a more nuanced organization that fits the particular study.  This is difficult.  And this manuscript could be improved by reorganizing its findings.  Rather than sectioning the findings into (1)complete constraint, (2) partial constraint (3) complete judicial discretion, it may be better to concentrate on a more ‘thematic’ organization that reflects findings related to a broader theoretical perspective (see also the discussion of theory below).  These three categories are certainly very important to the study. But perhaps, they are seen as one section.  That is, if you’re concerned with ‘sources of disparity’ – as noted in the abstract and upfront in the lit review – then the extent of discretion/constraint is one ‘source’ among other (definitions of crime history, judicial philosophy, defense/prosecuting attorney agreement, etc). Interestingly, the last section on complete discetion entails subsections.  Perhaps use this strategy throughout the findings.

If there were a larger theoretical or policy-based justification for this current organization then it may read more smoothly, but I couldn’t decipher why organizing by these three categories was used (though briefly noted on page 14 in “Plan of the Analysis”). 

The findings, again, give many valuable details.  But, they are not connected to past empirical findings and/or theory.  There are many places where the relationships found in this study could be contextualized in past work.  For example, throughout the findings the author discusses how judges interpret the use of guidelines differently in a number of ways.  Ulmer and Johnson (2017 v17, no2) discuss organizational conformity.  This could really help contextualize the study’s findings.

Without a theoretical background, it is difficult to draw much from the findings. The findings are currently presented and described how they were observed without connection to their theoretical importance. Further, past research has already shown sentences vary within guidelines systems.  This study’s findings seem to have important contributions but must be organized around some larger framework for readers to be able to pull out clear implications. 

Theory:  the author mentions focal concerns theory and court communities research but then moves on.  These approaches could build a foundation for this study.  Using a more theoretically informed approach, you’ll then probably need to reorganize the lit review rather substantially. For example, the judges’ meanings behind sentencing could be interpreted via focal concerns.  Or, the interactions between attorneys and judges could be interpreted via a ‘court communities’ lens.  Also, the finding of two contradictory formal sets of rules (statutory maximum vs guidelines) and how this causes disparity seems important and theoretically interesting.  

The literature review covers important studies but it could be more comprehensive and follow a more theoretically oriented order.  As it stands, the lit review touches on some important issues in the sentencing disparity research but misses others.  There’s certainly no need (or ability) to cover everything but some issues seem like they should be addressed further. For example, the plea/trial disparity comes up in several places in the paper.  

Justification about the importance and focus on reentry cases seems to be a big missing piece.  

Other comments-

Pg 9:  statements referring to Ethenne and Hall (mid page) seem confusing….try to clarify.

The end of the lit review (pg 10) could use a summary statement to transition to Methods section.

Check citation style. There are instances where author use “&” within text.

Check use of apostrophe.  There are instances where “judges” does not have one, and should.

Pg 13:  it states “Most of the defendants were from Mexico (n=23, 43%)” but 43% is not most. Perhaps use “a large portion”

Pg 13 – do findings belong here?  Sometimes it’s useful to discuss them briefly in methods but sometimes not.

Pg 15 – mid-page.  Clarify whether ‘recommended’ means recommended by guidelines or by attorneys.

Pg 22 – author states, ‘since there is no variation….extensive analysis is not necessary here.’  Maybe not, but maybe this could be an illustrative case about agreement and court norms. 

Key cases such as Booker v Washington, Apprendi v NJ could be cited.

There are plenty of articles and books out there to help build your review of findings and theory.  Ulmer’s review in 2012 Justice Quarterly could be a good start. 

See book, “Crook County” by Van Cleve for a qualitative study of courts.

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