Age Disparity in Criminal Court Sentencing

Dina Roy, University at Albany

When offenders are prosecuted in criminal court for similar offenses, it is expected that they are sanctioned equally. Youths under age eighteen tried in criminal court are considered adults under state law, thus there are no legally relevant differences between youths and adults. Some statistics have demonstrated that individuals under the age of eighteen are being adjudicated and sentenced differently than individuals over the age of eighteen. When similarly situated youths and adults in criminal court do not receive the same disposition, it is imperative to learn what factors are contributing to the discrepancy. Prior research suggests that judicial decision makers often implement their own form of justice by individualizing sentences through extralegal factors. As a result, sentencing may reflect bias and inequity toward certain groups. This may explain why youths under eighteen are receiving different dispositions from adults eighteen and older. The purpose of the present research is to determine the factors that predict different sentencing outcomes for similarly situated youth and adults in criminal court. In order to investigate the disparities in sentencing, the present study utilizes 1998 data from 40 large urban jurisdictions in the country to examine youths and adults prosecuted for felony offenses in criminal court. It will specifically examine the relative impact of legal, extralegal and contextual factors on youth and adult sentences in criminal court. The findings predict which factors exert substantial systematic influence on judicial decisions that cause different sentences for youth and adults.

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Updated 05/20/2006