Financial Dependents and Sentencing Outcomes in Federal District Courts: Variation by Race, Ethnicity, and Sex

Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(6) 646 –672
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420943933
Financial Dependents and
Sentencing Outcomes in
Federal District Courts:
Variation by Race, Ethnicity,
and Sex
Alexander Testa1 and Richard D. Hartley1
A voluminous literature has detailed disparities in punishment related to extra-legal
characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and sex. However, less research has investigated
the specific contexts and conditions under which disparities in punishment emerge.
Specifically, limited research to date has examined whether family characteristics
influence sentencing both directly, and in interaction with race, ethnicity, and sex.
The current study investigates this question using data on federal criminal sentences
from the United States Sentencing Commission for fiscal years 2015–2017. Findings
demonstrate that providing support for dependents generally has a positive
association with the likelihood of being incarcerated and overall sentence length.
Moreover, the positive association between support for dependents and punishment
severity is concentrated among Black male and Hispanic male defendants. Among
minority females and White defendants, having dependents has either a negative or
null association with sentencing outcomes. Findings are discussed in the context of
contemporary theoretical perspectives of punishment.
sentencing, punishment, sentencing disparity, dependents, family
1University of Texas at San Antonio, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alexander Testa, Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice, University of Texas at San Antonio, 501
W. Cesar E Chavez Blvd. San Antonio, TX 78207, USA.
943933CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420943933Criminal Justice Policy ReviewTesta and Hartley
Testa and Hartley 647
Research about disparities in punishment has been a fundamental aspect of socio-legal
scholarship for decades (Baumer, 2013; Mitchell, 2005; Ulmer, 2012). While exten-
sive scholarly attention to this topic has resulted in a substantial increase in knowledge
regarding the ways extra-legal characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and sex shape
punishment decisions, there has been substantially less focus on whether disparities
are conditional on other extra-legal characteristics. Indeed, only a few studies have
considered if factors such as citizenship (Demuth, 2002; Light et al., 2014; Tillyer &
Hartley, 2016; Valadez & Wang, 2017; Wolfe et al., 2011) or education (Franklin,
2017) condition the influence of race and ethnicity on sentencing outcomes.
One noteworthy factor that has gone overlooked is the role of a defendant’s finan-
cial support for family members in the sentencing process. Most research about sen-
tencing outcomes in federal proceedings often includes a measure of providing
financial support for dependents as a control variable (Feldmeyer & Ulmer, 2011;
Freeborn & Hartmann, 2010; Johnson & Betsinger, 2009; Kim et al., 2018; Mustard,
2001; Tillyer et al., 2015; Ulmer et al., 2010; Ulmer & Johnson, 2017). Yet, there has
been little research about whether support for financial dependents intersects with the
sex or race/ethnicity of a defendant to affect criminal punishment (Bickle & Peterson,
1991; Farrell, 2004; Ortiz & Spohn, 2014; Stacey & Spohn, 2006). The limited atten-
tion to this topic is surprising as theories of judicial decision-making suggest that a
criminal sentence might in part by influenced by “the disruption of ties to children and
other family members” (D. Steffensmeier et al., 1998, p. 767). Furthermore, percep-
tions of family status might also be influenced by demographic characteristics of a
defendant. For instance, sentencing decisions might vary based on the sex of a defen-
dant due to the “the differing social costs arising from separating them [women] from
their families” (Daly, 1987b, p. 287). Likewise, because of implicit biases, judges
might be influenced by racial stereotypes pertaining to both criminal offending and
family composition (Livingston, 2015; Ruggles, 1994; Wilson, 2009), that view
minority males as involved in crime as being particularly irresponsible or absent care-
givers (Daly, 1989). Furthermore, drawing on judicial attributions of minority criminal
defendants as being particularly blameworthy and posing a danger to others (D.
Steffensmeier et al., 1998, 2017), judges might potentially perceive Black and Hispanic
caregivers as posing a greater physical, financial, or emotional threat to their family
(Harrison & Willis Esqueda, 2001; Vasquez-Tokos & Norton-Smith, 2017).
Research about the ways race and family status characteristics shapes punishment
decisions also holds implications for understanding how the consequences of criminal
justice contact affect families. The rise of incarceration in the United States has cor-
responded with a considerable increase in the number of individuals with a family
member incarcerated, with especially high rates of incarceration concentrated among
Black and Hispanic families (Enns et al., 2019; Wakefield & Wildeman, 2014). Thus,
assessing racial and ethnic disparities related to punishment of those with financial
dependents is an important topic of inquiry, as evidence of harsher punishments for
minority defendants with dependents relative to similarly situated Whites might be an

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