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Multilevel Analysis of Community Effects on Criminal Sentencing

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 22 Issue: 4 Dated: December 2005 Pages: 452-487
Date Published
December 2005
36 pages

This study tested hypotheses regarding the impact of a community's characteristics on the sentences received by offenders convicted by a community's courts.


The data analyzed were from the 1998 State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS) data collection, merged with a unique county-level dataset that provided information on characteristics of the counties in which the defendants were adjudicated. Collected biennially since 1990, the SCPS provides detailed legal and extra-legal information on a large sample of felony defendants, representing all felony cases filed in the 75 most populous U.S. urban counties, composing more than one-third of the Nation's population and approximately one-half of all reported crimes. The dependent variable was the sentence received, coded as prison incarceration, jail confinement, or noncustodial sanction. Community-level variables were income inequality, population density, racial composition, age structure, sex ratio, religious affiliation, political orientation, violent crime rate, located in the South, and the presence of sentencing guidelines. Individual-level variables were race, sex, criminal history, type of offense, type of adjudication, and representation by a public defender. The findings show that defendants adjudicated in communities with a relatively high degree of income inequality, larger proportions of evangelical/fundamentalists, and higher violent-crime rates were significantly more likely to receive prison incarceration. Being adjudicated in the South, population density, racial composition, age structure, sex ratio, political affiliation, and sentencing guidelines did not have an impact on the sentences received. The results suggest that there remains a statistically significant amount of sentencing variation across counties after controlling for relevant individual-level and community-level factors. The implications of these findings for research, theory, and policymaking are discussed. 4 tables and 108 references

Date Published: December 1, 2005