Regional Differences in Sentencing Practices

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study examines various sentencing practices across fifty states in order to determine whether regional differences exist across the United States. Empirical examinations of regional differences in punishment have largely been limited to capital punishment. This current study draws upon Borg's "southern subculture of punitiveness" concept to determine the extent to which regional differences exist in other types of controversial responses to crime, such as life without parole, sex offender registration rates, juvenile waivers, and the civil commitment of sex offenders. The authors expected to find that the southern region uses punitive sentencing practices significantly more than other regions. However, results from permutation testing and pairwise regional comparisons suggest that regions in the U.S. appear more similar than dissimilar in their use of various sanctions. The authors maintain that sentencing uniformity is necessary to maintain the integrity of a criminal justice system that is based on principles of proportionality, equity, and predictability.

Introduction

Attempts to describe American sentencing practices are confounded by the fact that within the nation, there exist distinct jurisdictions for each state, the federal government, the District of Columbia, and the military. Each follows its own set of sentencing practices and laws, thereby creating, in some cases, extreme sentencing variability throughout the country. One of the most polarizing sentencing practices, for example, is that of capital punishment. Thirty-four states, in addition to the federal government and the United States military, practiced capital punishment as of July 2011 (Death Penalty Information Center [DPIC] 2011 b). But even amongst the states that execute offenders, there is widespread variation in its application. As of January 1, 2010, California had 697 inmates on death row, whereas only one person sat on New Hampshire's death row (DPIC 2011b, 2). While twenty-two death penalty states carried out no executions in 2010, Texas put to death seventeen offenders that very same year (3). In addition to variations in sentencing practices, "sentencing guidelines differ in their goals, scope of coverage, design, and operation" [original italics] (Frase 2005, 1190). As a result of the considerable disparities in the types of punishments enacted throughout different jurisdictions, one might categorize certain states as more punitive than others. Yet, there are ways in which a state's level of punitive sentencing might be gauged aside from solely comparing their imprisonment rates and their use of capital punishment.

This study examines various sentencing practices across fifty states in order to determine if geographical differences exist regarding what some might claim are punitive sentencing practices. Empirical examinations of regional differences in punishment have largely focused on the exploration of capital punishment. For example, Hurlbert (1989) found that support for the death penalty was positively correlated with the values and opinions of native southerners in comparison with non-southerners. According to Paternoster, Brame and Bacon (2008), the number of southern executions from 1930 to 1967 exceeded the total number of executions throughout the rest of the United States (30). After the reinstatement of capital punishment in the 1970s, the South still accounted for more executions than any other region from 1977 to 2005 (50). In 2010, the South accounted for 76 percent of the nation's executions, whereas the Midwest and West, respectively, were responsible for 17 and 7 percent (Death Penalty Information Center [DPIC] 201 lb). No executions took place in the northeastern states during 2010. Even in 2000, 89 percent of the nation's executions took place in southern states (DPIC 2011b).

This current study draws upon Borg's (1997) "southern subculture of punitiveness" concept to determine the extent to which regional differences exist in sentencing practices. …