A Cornell professor has discovered thousands of errors in criminal sentences handed down in Maryland. Slate reports on the work of Emily Owens, who discovered the errors while conducting dissertation research at the University of Maryland. Owens found thousands of inconsistencies and errors in sentence recommendation worksheets provided to judges by the state sentencing commission. The errors translated into extra months and years of prison time for unlucky convicts and light sentences for lucky ones.
Owens and two colleagues compared trials in which the defendants’ characteristics and their crimes should have added up to identical sentence recommendations. But because mistakes were made in worksheet calculations, one ended up with a suggested sentence that was higher or lower than the other. Since the crimes and the criminals were otherwise quite similar, any systematic difference in punishments handed out by judges could be attributed to work sheet errors.