The Influence of Community Characteristics on the Sentencing of Felony Defendants

Noelle Fearn, University of Missouri - St. Louis

The present research uses data on a sample of felony defendants processed in a nationally representative sample of large urban counties, in conjunction with data on the characteristics of the jurisdictions in which their cases were adjudicated, to examine the influence of community characteristics at the sentencing stage of the criminal justice process. Drawing on prior theory and research, hierarchical linear and generalized linear models are estimated to determine whether various characteristics of counties (e.g., racial composition, age structure, educational attainment, unemployment, sex ratio, median income, political conservatism, religious composition, crime rates, and sentencing guidelines) affect the likelihood that felony defendants are sentenced to longer periods of imprisonment, net of other factors associated with these outcomes. In addition, this research explores whether county characteristics condition the effects of defendant and case characteristics on legal decision making, including whether any observed race disparities in legal outcomes vary in magnitude across jurisdictions and, if so, whether features such as community racial composition or sentencing structure help to explain that variation. This research broadens our understanding of the influence of defendant characteristics on criminal justice processing, especially the contextual nature of those effects, and expands our knowledge of how community characteristics affect legal decision making.

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Updated 05/20/2006