Criminal sentencing by preferred numbers

Dhami, Mandeep K. and Belton, Ian K. and Merrall, Elizabeth and McGrath, Andrew and Bird, Sheila M. (2020) Criminal sentencing by preferred numbers. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 17 (1). pp. 139-163. ISSN 1740-1461 (

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Criminal sentencing is a complex cognitive activity often performed by the unaided mind under suboptimal conditions. As such, sentencers may not behave according to policy, guidelines, or training. We analyzed the distribution of sentences meted out in one year in two different jurisdictions (i.e., England and Wales, and New South Wales, Australia). We reveal that sentencers prefer certain numbers when meting out sentence lengths (in custody and community service) and amounts (for fines/compensation). These “common doses” accounted for over 90 percent of sentences in each jurisdiction. The size of these doses increased as sentences became more severe, and doses followed a logarithmic pattern. Our findings are compatible with psychological research on preferred numbers and are reminiscent of Weber's and Fechner's laws. The findings run contrary to arguments against efforts to reduce judicial discretion, and potentially undermine the notion of individualized justice, as well as raise questions about the (cost) effectiveness of sentencing.