County-Level Context and Sentence Lengths for Black, Latinx, and White Individuals Sentenced to Prison: A Multi-Level Assessment

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(9) 915 –937
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211021893
County-Level Context and
Sentence Lengths for Black,
Latinx, and White Individuals
Sentenced to Prison:
A Multi-Level Assessment
Katherine A. Durante1
This article examines the relationship between race, ethnicity, county-level contextual
variables, and sentence lengths for Black, Latinx, and White individuals sentenced
to prison. Hierarchical linear modeling is used to examine the focal concerns
perspective, the racial/ethnic threat thesis, socioeconomic inequality across racial/
ethnic groups, political climate, and individual-level factors and sentence lengths.
Data come from the National Corrections Reporting Program and other sources
to examine sentences for over 500,000 individuals admitted to U.S. prisons between
2015 and 2017, from 751 counties. Results indicate that Black and Latinx individuals
receive longer sentences than their White counterparts, even after controlling for
relevant variables. The racial/ethnic threat thesis is not supported. Black individuals
are sentenced longer than their White counterparts in counties with larger shares
of Republican voters. Findings indicate that race and ethnicity continue to be salient
predictors of punishment, with Black and Latinx individuals facing harsher outcomes
than their White counterparts.
punishment, focal concerns, racial disparity, racial threat, sentence length
People of color, especially Black individuals, face disparate imprisonment across the
United States.1 Yet sentencing outcomes vary geographically. For example, in
Pennsylvania, Black and Latinx individuals are imprisoned at 8.9 and 3.3 times the
1Nevada State College, Henderson, USA
Corresponding Author:
Katherine A. Durante, Department of Social Sciences, Nevada State College, 1300 Nevada State Drive,
Henderson, NV 89002, USA.
1021893CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211021893Criminal Justice Policy ReviewDurante
916 Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(9)
rate of Whites, respectively, which is considerably higher than the state prison average
disparity ratios of 5.1 and 1.4 (Nellis, 2016). Still, Latinx persons are estimated to be
incarcerated at lower rates than Whites in at least nineteen states (Nellis, 2016), which
demonstrates the complex relationship between race, ethnicity, location, and punish-
ment. The wide variation in sentencing disparities underlines the importance of study-
ing the relationship between jurisdictional context and punishment. In this study, a
variety of county-level predictors are examined across diverse jurisdictions to increase
our understanding of macro-level contextual factors associated with increased sen-
tence lengths for Black and Latinx individuals sentenced to prison.
A wealth of scholarship examines sentence length disparity across racial and ethnic
groups, and how race and/or ethnicity might interact with sex, age, and legally relevant
variables such as offense type and prior felony convictions (see Baumer, 2013; Spohn,
2000 for summary). Overall, findings suggest that punishment is not race neutral.
However, not all studies have found a disparity in sentence length, suggesting that
context matters. For example, Spohn (2000) surveyed the research on sentence length
and determined that 15 out of 48 studies found significant direct effects of race and/or
ethnicity, but that results varied based on the sample examined (p. 456). More recently,
Franklin (2020) notes that the best evidence shows that Black and Latinx individuals
convicted of crimes are punished more severely than their White counterparts, but
only under certain conditions. Thus, scholarly inquiry should move away from “if”
racial disparity in punishment exists, toward increasing our understanding of what
circumstances or contexts may lead to racial disparity.
In recent years, much of the research on race and sentence length has focused on
people incarcerated in federal prisons (Brennan & Spohn, 2009; Doerner & Demuth,
2010; Feldmeyer & Ulmer, 2011; Franklin, 2015; Nowacki, 2015, 2017; Ward et al.,
2016), despite the fact that 87%2 of people incarcerated are in state prisons. Research
has also focused on racial and ethnic differences in sentence length specifically for
people convicted of drug offenses (Brennan & Spohn, 2009; Helms & Constanza,
2010; Omori, 2017; Spohn, 2013; Spohn & Sample, 2013; Stringer & Holland, 2016;
Ward et al., 2016), in response to the stark reality that Black people are admitted to
U.S. prisons for drug offenses at more than 10 times the rate of White people (Beatty
et al., 2007).
What is missing are studies that examine a variety of contextual factors—includ-
ing racial/ethnic threat, socioeconomic inequality across racial/ethnic groups, politi-
cal climate, and other characteristics often associated with punitive criminal justice
outcomes—across interstate county jurisdictions. With the exception of scholarship
that tests racial/ethnic threat (Feldmeyer et al., 2015; Feldmeyer & Ulmer, 2011;
Wang & Mears, 2015), and a handful of studies of Pennsylvania and California
(Chen, 2013; Johnson, 2006; Ulmer & Johnson, 2004), the context has been largely
limited in the research on sentence length. The research done on the relationship
between contextual characteristics and sentence length has generally focused on
jurisdictions within a single state (Arazan et al., 2019; Chen, 2013; Feldmeyer et al.,
2015; Johnson, 2006; Ulmer & Johnson, 2004; Wooldredge, 2007) or has analyzed
state context (Stringer & Holland, 2016; Wang et al., 2013) or neighborhood context

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