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Multilevel Context of Criminal Sentencing: Integrating Judge- and County-Level Influences

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 44 Issue: 2 Dated: May 2006 Pages: 259-298
Brian D. Johnson
Date Published
May 2006
40 pages
This Pennsylvania study examined the effects on sentencing of social factors that might influence the judge and the court.
The findings show that judges' sentencing decisions are influenced primarily by case characteristics, such as offense severity and offender characteristics. However, the study also found significant sentencing variations across counties and judges even after accounting for differences in individual cases; for example, minority judges were significantly less likely to incarcerate offenders, as were older judges; offenders sentenced in small courts were more likely to be incarcerated; and offenders in large courts received longer sentences. Offenders sentenced in counties with more available jail space were also more likely to be incarcerated. A court's rate of departure from sentencing guidelines influenced the likelihood of incarceration as well. The findings generally show that the criminal sentencing decisionmaking process is jointly influenced by individual case characteristics, judicial background characteristics, and county-level contextual influences. Even under presumptive guidelines, sentencing outcomes varied significantly across judges and their courts. More research in this area is recommended. Study data were obtained from offender information maintained by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, judicial background characteristics obtained from published biographies of Pennsylvania judges, and county-level courtroom information from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and the U.S. Census Bureau. Sentencing data were obtained for cases processed in 1999 and 2000 that came under the 1997 Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. This involved 148,590 individual cases, 79,333 of which resulted in incarceration. The dependent variables measured were the decision to incarcerate and, if incarcerated, its length. Variables pertinent to judges were race, gender, and caseload. Court-related variables measured included court size, sentencing guidelines departure rate, and local jail capacity. 7 tables, 57 references, and appended statistical coding and descriptions of variables


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