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Community Context and Sentencing Decisions: A Multilevel Analysis

NCJ Number
Date Published
214 pages
This study examined the influence of community characteristics on the sentencing decisions of a large sample of felony defendants processed in a nationally representative sample of large urban counties.
Chapter 1 introduces the study and claims that despite the fact that the examination of community context on criminal justice decisionmaking is considered an important avenue of research, scant empirical research on this topic has been conducted. Chapter 2 presents the relevant prior research, including macro-level, court organizational, and multilevel research that has examined community context in terms of sentencing outcomes. Chapter 3 presents the main theoretical perspectives that attempt to explain the ways in which community context may influence sentencing outcomes. Specific research questions are presented and include, first, an examination of the effects of community context on individual sentencing outcomes and, second, an examination of whether community context shapes the influence of defendants’ age, race, and sex on sentencing outcomes. Chapter 4 explains the data, methods, and analytic strategy used to examine the data. A multilevel modeling approach was used to examine data from the 1998 State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS) and a county-level dataset in order to assess the degree to which sentencing outcomes vary across the communities included in the analysis. Chapter 5 reports the empirical results for the main effects of community context on sentencing outcomes, which revealed that the religious affiliation of the community, measured by percent of residents who were Protestant, had a consistent positive effect on the sentence length outcome. Other results, however, indicate that with the exception of religion, none of the community characteristics included in the analysis impacted the sentencing decision. Thus, the only community characteristic affecting sentencing outcome indicated that defendants adjudicated in counties with a high proportion of Protestants received longer custodial sentences than defendants adjudicated in other counties. Chapter 6 reports on findings regarding whether community characteristics moderate the influence of defendant characteristics on sentencing outcomes, which indicate that none of the community characteristics impacted the effect of defendant age, race, or sex on sentencing outcome. Chapter 7 summarizes the main findings of the study and calls for further multilevel analysis of community characteristics and sentencing outcomes. Tables, references, appendix

Date Published: January 1, 2003