Neighborhood Level Disparities in Court Dispositions Before and After the Implementation of Sentencing Guidelines in Ohio

John Wooldredge, University of Cincinnati
Tim Griffin, University of Nevada, Reno

Characteristics of defendants' neighborhoods reflecting greater social and economic disadvantage may result in harsher case outcomes at the individual level if court actors incorporate such characteristics into their perceptions of more crime-prone environments. This situation inhibits the achievement of two goals simultaneously: equity in the treatment of criminal defendants versus improving quality of life in high-crime neighborhoods (a goal of community justice). We argue that neighborhood differences in criminal case processing can be framed in similar fashion to research on extra-legal disparities in case processing conducted solely at the individual level, with the additional consideration of Karp and Clear's (2000) conceptual framework of "community justice". The study described here focuses on the relevance of neighborhood characteristics for shaping disparities in felony case processing in Ohio courts of common pleas, both before and after the implementation of sentencing guidelines. Tri-level models (defendants, neighborhoods, and jurisdictions) reveal that, regardless of the time period examined, the socio-economic status (SES) of a defendant's census track of residence is more important for predicting charge reductions, convictions, and prison sentences when compared to the same status indicators measured at either the individual or jurisdiction level. The persistence of neighborhood level disparities under sentencing guidelines suggests that state-level sentencing reforms may necessarily be limited in their impact when they do not address these types of neighborhood effects on case processing.

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Updated 05/20/2006