Friend or foe?: An analysis of factors influencing sentence length in the prosecution of terrorism

This post continues our series sharing pre-publication versions of chapter introductions in our upcoming book titled “Prosecuting Political Violence: Collaborative Research and Method”

Chapter 4

Friend or foe?: An analysis of factors influencing sentence length in the prosecution of terrorism
by Megan Burtis and Liz Butler

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide a template for the US justice system in an attempt to achieve a level of consistency in sentencing (Mitchell 2017). These guidelines present a recommended sentence length dependent on the severity of the crime committed and the defendant’s criminal history, but these recommendations are not definitive. The US Supreme Court case United States v. Booker made it possible for judges to give out sentences beyond the federal guidelines if they felt the facts presented during the case called for this (United States v. Booker, 2005). In addition, research conducted by scholars such as Ulmer and Johnson has pointed to a number of extrajudicial factors that may influence sentencing, such as socioeconomic status and race, as they affect the “perceived dangerousness” of a defendant (Ulmer & Johnson 2004). These factors have led to variations in sentence length that, if the Federal Sentencing Guidelines alone had been adhered to, would not occur.

In the chapter that follows, Burtis and Butler aim to analyze this variation in sentencing as it pertains to terroristic crimes. While many have studied how and why terrorists become involved in and choose to commit terroristic crimes, few have examined the how and the why of their prosecution. Burtis and Butler aim to address one aspect of this research gap through an analysis of selected cases derived from the dataset created by the Prosecution Project (tPP). The cases selected include three mass indictments with variation in sentencing both within and across these cases. The authors utilize a grounded theory approach in analyzing sentencing documents and variables coded through tPP to construct a theoretical typology as to how sentence length is decided. Burtis and Butler find that the government’s view of a defendant has a substantial effect on the sentence length they are given. The authors find that this view results from a number of factors, such as the plea entered by the defendant, the level of regret the defendant shows for the crime committed, the degree to which the defendant continues to support the ideology which motivated their crime, and finally, the extent to which the defendant cooperated with the government during both the investigation and adjudication.

The work by Burtis and Butler demonstrates the possibility for the use of tPP to construct new theories that further the field of terrorism studies. Though this chapter analyzes only a few cases, the existence of tPP allows for the immediate ability to test theories against a larger sample and gain a better understanding of their generalizability. Burtis and Butler aim to show undergraduate researchers how they can use existing data and literature to craft their own theories, despite this seemingly impossible task for scholars so new to the field. Through the addition of these new theories, and the encouragement of new and emerging scholars, the authors believe the field as a whole will benefit from this progression.

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