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Explaining Sentence Severity in Large Urban Counties: A Multilevel Analysis of Contextual and Case-Level Factors

NCJ Number
The Prison Journal Volume: 84 Issue: 2 Dated: June 2004 Pages: 184-207
Robert R. Weidner; Richard Frase; Iain Pardoe
Rosemary L. Gido
Date Published
June 2004
24 pages
This study used hierarchical logistic modeling to examine the impact of legal, extralegal, and contextual variables on the decision to sentence felons to prison in a sample of large urban counties in 1996.
The most commonly used gauge of interjurisdictional differences in punitiveness within the United States is probably States’ rates of imprisonment. Using this measure, the United States imprisoned its citizens at a rate of 478 per 100,000 in 2000, a national rate that is 6 to 12 times as high as those of other Western nations. This high rate of imprisonment overshadows the large variation in levels of imprisonment within the Nation, which have remained remarkably stable over time. This study assessed the impact on sentencing of four contextual factors that have been found to be influential in previous studies: level of crime, level of unemployment, racial composition, and region (i.e., the South). Data for this study came from the State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS) program of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a biennial collection of data on felony defendants in State courts in 40 of the Nation’s 75 most populous counties. Information collected for SCPS includes demographic characteristics, criminal histories, pretrial processing, and disposition and sentencing of felony defendants. Using 1996 individual-level data, and after excluding counties with missing data, the sample contained 4,358 convicted individuals from 30 counties. The individual-level data were linked to county-level variables using an identifier that is commonly included as a data element in federally collected data. The data were analyzed using a hierarchical logistic regression model. The analysis found that none of the four contextual variables considered by itself increased the likelihood of a prison sentence, but 10 case-level factors, both legal and extralegal, and several macro-micro interaction terms were influential. This suggests that sentencing decisions in these counties are based primarily on case-level factors and not on the four contextual factors examined in this research. This does not preclude the possibility that other contextual factors may be key determinants in sentencing decisions. These results demonstrate the importance of considering smaller geographic units (i.e. counties instead of States) and controlling for case-level factors in research on interjurisdictional differences in prison use. 2 tables, 22 notes, and 43 references