Sentencing and State-Level Racial and Ethnic Contexts

By Wang, Xia; Mears, Daniel P. | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Sentencing and State-Level Racial and Ethnic Contexts


Wang, Xia, Mears, Daniel P., Law & Society Review


Sentencing disparity has constituted a central focus of criminological and legal studies scholarship. Recent research has highlighted the salience of social context on sentencing decisions, including disparities in sentencing. This work has identified many factors-such as racial and ethnic composition, unemployment rate, and political party representation (e.g., Britt 2000; Fearn 2005; Feldmeyer et al. 2015; Ulmer and Johnson 2004)- that may influence courtroom decision making. Although these studies have significantly advanced scholarship, an unresolved question is whether there also may be state-level effects on sentencing. Specifically, it remains unknown whether state social context affects sentencing decisions, whether this effect conditions the effect of county-level social context, and whether interactive effects of county context and state context are greater for some groups (e.g., blacks and Hispanics) than for whites.

A focus on direct and interactive effects of state context on sentencing is warranted for several reasons. First, sentencing laws and other factors related to sanctioning, such as the organization of correctional systems and parole boards, are organized at the state level. Second, scholars have argued that state-level effects on sentencing decisions may exist. Over 30 years ago, for example, Eisenstein and Jacob (1977) suggested that state laws and context influence case outcomes. Other work since has reinforced this observation. For example, a study by Crutchfield, Bridges, and Pitchford (1994) found "dramatic and substantively important differences" among states in racial disparities in imprisonment (p. 174); the authors concluded that "differences in [state] context contribute significantly to variation in the form and severity of punishments and to variation in the types of persons and groups punished for crimes" (p. 179) (see also Barker 2009). New lines of research have begun to examine this possibility more closely (see, e.g., Fearn 2005; Helms and Jacobs 2002; Wang et al. 2013). Third, substantive overlap exists in arguments presented for county-level effects and state-level effects; indeed, a number of studies suggest that minority threat effects operate at both county and state levels. Notably, however, studies of county-level effects have focused primarily on sentencing decisions while studies of state-level effects have focused primarily on variation in incarceration rates. Underlying each of these bodies of work is an emphasis on racial and ethnic threat as a factor that influences sentencing decisions and incarceration rates. A logical extension of such work is to combine them by examining how state-level context may influence sentencing decisions, as well as how it may modify county-level contextual effects.

Against this backdrop, the goal of this paper is to contribute to sentencing research aimed at understanding how state-level social context may influence sentencing decisions; in particular, the article seeks to extend efforts to use the minority threat perspective to understand better the factors that influence sentencing decisions. To this end, we develop a series of hypotheses aimed at investigating whether state context influences sentencing decisions, whether these effects amplify county-level effects on sentencing, and, finally, whether county-level and state-level contextual effects together produce more punitive outcomes for some groups than for others. In so doing, this study responds to calls for including state context in sentencing studies and it builds on previous multilevel sentencing research by theorizing and empirically examining interactions across three levels of analysis-individual, county, and state. We argue that, when the three levels of analysis are examined, the functional equivalent of a "perfect storm" model emerges, one that highlights the ways in which race and ethnicity at multiple levels of analysis can interact to contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing. …

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