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The importance of county context in the measurement of sentence disparity: The search for routinization

Journal of Criminal Justice
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/0047-2352(95)00013-g


Abstract Using felony court cases from three Florida counties, this article examines the hypothesis that sentence disparity results from the contextual routinization of courtroom behavior and not necessarily differential treatment of similar offenders. When different contexts are analyzed, it is believed that courtroom actors will treat similar offenders in similar ways as much as possible. Sentence reformers have attempted to alleviate disparity with sentencing guidelines that usually do not take into account the tendency of courtroom actors to make decisions in routine ways. The analysis reveals the routinization of sentencing behavior within each county which appears to be sentence disparity when county context is not isolated. Because the routinization of sentencing behavior is not a singular part of the courtroom process, the routinization of arrest charge, bail, arraignment charge, and conviction charge decisions are analyzed in conjunction with the sentence decisions for each county. If disparity is not occurring within counties, but across counties, the concern over disparity needs to be reexamined. Isolating county context indicates how courts make decisions. These are the patterns of routinization that have developed in each court's attempt to determine who should receive more severe sentences. These patterns suggest the degree to which warranted and unwarranted disparity takes place from one jurisdiction to another. The analysis of these patterns is used to recommend the elements necessary in the proper measurement of sentence disparity. Implications for sentence reform and future disparity research are discussed.

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