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Penn Law Student Wins Prestigious Academic Award for His Paper on Sentencing Guidelines

April 24, 2012

Ben Grunwald, C’08, L’13, PhD’13, a second-year student at University of Pennsylvania Law School who is pursuing a joint degree in law and criminology, has won the 2012 Student Paper Award from the Law and Society Association for his study of sentencing guidelines.

The award, given “for the research paper written by a graduate or law student that best represents law and society research,” is to be presented at the association’s 2012 International Conference on Law and Society, which will take place in Honolulu, Hawaii, June 5-8.
Grunwald wrote the paper, “Questioning Blackmun’s Thesis: Does uniformity in sentencing entail unfairness?”, as an independent study under the supervision of Penn Law Prof. Jonathan Klick, who has taught at the Law School since 2007 and specializes in law and economics. 
“I have no doubt that Ben will be successful as a legal scholar,” Klick said. “His paper provides a new systematic framework for thinking about the potential tradeoffs involved in sentencing guidelines. It’s a nice contribution to the literature generally.”
“I was very excited to hear about the award,” Grunwald said. “The Law and Society Association is a great academic institution, and I hope to participate in the organization in the future.”
Grunwald’s achievement reflects the great emphasis Penn Law places on student-faculty engagement. The Law School’s relatively small size – there are currently 900 enrolled students – and low student-to-faculty ratio encourage students to work one-on-one with their professors, as Grunwald did when he proposed his independent study of sentencing guidelines.
Grunwald, who majored in sociology and philosophy as a Penn undergraduate, plans to pursue an academic career exploring empirical questions in criminal law and criminal procedure. He entered graduate school with the hope of combining a Ph.D. in criminology with a law degree and expects to complete his JD in December 2013 and his Ph.D. shortly thereafter. He hopes the paper will become part of his Ph.D. dissertation, which will explore issues of both sentencing and recidivism.
Grunwald’s paper uses sophisticated statistical modeling to examine empirical assumptions in the debate about sentencing guidelines. Critics often assume that sentencing guidelines increase uniformity in sentencing while decreasing fairness. They maintain that by constraining judges’ ability to take all relevant case characteristics into consideration and tailor an “individualized” punishment to fit the crime, mandatory guidelines can result in unfairness. Grunwald calls this the “bias effect” of sentencing guidelines.
A hypothetical example Grunwald offers in his paper is the friend of a drug dealer who tags along for a delivery and as a result receives the same sentence as the principal drug distributor.
Discussing such disparities in the context of capital punishment, Justice Harry Blackmun once famously said: “Experience has shown that … consistency and rationality … are inversely related to [fairness]. A step towards consistency is a step away from fairness.”
But Grunwald shows in his paper that increasing uniformity of sentences through guidelines also has a second effect, a “mathematical effect,” which increases fairness. The central insight of the paper is that the “mathematical effect” is quite large, and will often be larger than the “bias effect” that has driven criticisms of sentencing guidelines for decades.
According to Grunwald, the results of the study should assuage some concerns about the “potential to produce unfairness by constraining judicial discretion through robust sentencing guidelines.”
But he cautions that the traditional legislative strategy of adopting comprehensive guidelines that cover all criminal offenses “may be misguided,” according to Grunwald. He proposes an underused method of data collection that would help sentencing commissions identify offense types associated with high levels of disparity, where guidelines are most effective.
Grunwald will travel to Honolulu in June to receive the award.