Document Type


Publication Title

Federal Sentencing Reporter



Publication Date



Criminal Justice, Federal, Snitches, Sentence reduction, Substantial Asssitance


How much more severe are sentences imposed in districts with low substantial assistance rates than those in which the rate is very high? In the aggregate, not at all. At first blush this may puzzle readers because substantial assistance (SA) departures are very unevenly distributed across districts and SA accounts for nearly two-thirds of all downward departures, almost 7,900 of the 12,000 in fiscal 1996. Although this pattern could result in gross disparities among districts, my analysis of inter-district sentencing patterns reveals no statistically significant correlation between the rate of SA departures and the average length of sentences imposed in a district. A high rate of SA does not mean that sentences are generally more lenient because SA departures are only one factor in the complex system that determines sentence severity. SA departures are among the most visible mechanisms, but their impact is typically blunted by district-specific practices in which prosecutors and judges respond to each other's choices in ways that even out inter-district differences and mitigate the disparities that might otherwise result from wide variation in SA departures.