Law: Sentences by the Book

More rational court penalties, but more prisoners too

The most fateful exercise of judicial discretion is the one that starts with the words "I sentence you . . ." Whether to slap the wrist or slam the cell door is a complex and partly subjective decision in which the particulars of the crime, the history of the culprit and the disposition of the judge all play a part. No wonder, then, that a stickup may draw anything from hard time to probation and defense lawyers maneuver to get their cases heard by judges known to go easy.

For years such disparities have troubled both liberals concerned about equal justice...

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