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Community Context and Sentencing Decisions: A Multilevel Analysis, Executive Summary

NCJ Number
Date Published
August 2003
7 pages
This executive summary provides an overview of a study that 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.
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. As such, specific research questions addressed in this study 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. 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 varied across the communities included in the analysis. Results of statistical analyses 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. Moreover, the results indicate that none of the community characteristics impacted the effect of defendant age, race, or sex on sentencing outcome. 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. Implications of the research include the fact that current sentencing guidelines do not significantly impact the types of length of sentences imposed on felony defendants. Further multilevel analysis of community characteristics and sentencing outcomes are called for.

Date Published: August 1, 2003