Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Hidden Disparities: Decomposing Inequalities in Time Served in California, 1985-2009

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Hidden Disparities: Decomposing Inequalities in Time Served in California, 1985-2009

Article excerpt

Over the last decade, scholars interested in the punitive shift in U.S. criminal justice policy in the 1980s and 1990s amassed an extensive literature on the social and structural processes that influence decisions to incarcerate, and subsequent sentence length. Consequently, there is a variety of information available about policy changes over time, the factors that led to the shift in punitive policies, and the ways these policies influenced the likelihood of incarceration for people from various sociodemographic groups (Beckett and Sasson 2000; Duster 1997; Pettit and Western 2004). Despite the abundance of literature available on sentencing patterns (Kramer and Ulmer 1996; Steffensmeier and Demuth 2000; Steffensmeier, Kramer, and Streifel 1993; Steffensmeier, Kramer, and Ulmer 1995; Steffensmeier, Ulmer, and Kramer 1998; Tonry 1996; Ulmer, Kurlychek, and Kramer 2007) and prison reentry (Bushway 2004; Kushel et al. 2005; Langan and Levin 2002; Lynch and Sabol 2001; Petersilia 1999, 2003), scholars and policymakers have yet to explore patterns of release over time and across various socio-demographic groups. Moreover, the available literature on the shift in U.S. criminal justice policy tends to neglect the influence of history, which suggests that punitive policy in the period under study had a uniform effect on sentencing and incarceration across racial/ethnic groups.

The study used data from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) to examine patterns of release from 1985 to 2009 in California. In addition to incorporating the factors that we know impact sentencing, I specified temporal boundaries for the cohorts studied, based on theoretical and historical factors that may have influenced the release of individuals admitted to prison in California between 1985 and 2000. Thus, this article examines cohorts sentenced between 1985 through the end of 2000, and follows them through 2009. It then decomposes the length of stay into the maximum sentence given at the time of sentencing and the percentage of the maximum sentence actually served. The product of these two pieces equals the length of stay; however, one is determined by a judge at the time of sentencing, and the other is influenced by factors outside the bounds of the courtroom.

This inquiry examines the relationship between the critical features that introduce inequity in sentencing and the components of release-maximum sentence, percentage of maximum sentence served, and total time served. I also investigate if there are differences between racial and ethnic groups in the components of release. Differences do exist between racial groups for each component, and the differences enable the masking of disparities in sentencing. Essentially, the findings implicate the role of the people and events that occur outside of the courtroom as playing a significant role in the continuation of racial disparities in time served. Such dynamics can play an equally, if not more, important role in the actual time served than the sentence delivered by the judge.

The next section of the article, the background, provides an overview of the rise of mass incarceration and the punitive shift in crime control in the United States and California in the 1980s and 1990s. I then address the relevant literature on sentencing trends in the United States, describe the data sources, and outline the two prison-entry cohorts used in the analysis. This includes descriptions of the incarceration policies and practices that shaped the experiences of individuals who entered prison in those two time periods-1985-1993 and 1994-2000. I then describe the methods used, followed by the analysis, and conclude with a discussion of the findings.


The Punitive Shift in Crime Control

Garland (2001) first coined the term "mass incarceration" to describe the enormous rise in the incarcerated population in the United States since the 1970s. In fact, the United States currently has the largest incarcerated population in the world (International Centre for Prison Studies 2013). …

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