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

Published date01 June 2015
Date01 June 2015
Hidden Disparities: Decomposing Inequalities in
Time Served in California, 1985–2009
Evelyn J. Patterson
While a large literature establishes the racial and ethnic disparities in sentenc-
ing, we know comparatively little about the role of race and ethnicity in prison
release. Using data from the National Corrections Reporting Programconte x-
tualized in California’s political and legislative atmosphere, this article
explores the role of race and ethnicity in prison release between 1985 and
2009 by studying components of sentencing and release. Limiting the evalua-
tion of disparities to sentencing or time served in prison at release may inad-
vertently mask racial and ethnic inequities in the judicial process because
events and actors can introduce circumstances between sentencing and
release from prison that ultimately influence time served. The analysis con-
firmed that the measures used at the time of sentencing do not provide
enough information to determine the differential experiences of groups in
the real amount of time served in prison.V
C2014 Law and Society Association
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 likeli-
hood of incarceration for people from various sociodemographic
groups (Beckett and Sasson 2000; Duster 1997; Pettit and West-
ern 2004). Despite the abundance of literature available on sen-
tencing patterns (Kramer and Ulmer 1996; Steffensmeier and
Demuth 2000; Steffensmeier, Kramer, and Streifel 1993; Steffen-
smeier, 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),
The author would like to acknowledge Leslie Rodriguez for the contribution she made
to this paper.
Please direct all correspondence to Evelyn J. Patterson, Department of Sociology,
Vanderbilt University, PMB 351811, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, TN 37235-1811;
e-mail: evelyn.patterson@vanderbilt.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 49, Number 2 (2015)
C2015 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
scholars and policymakers have yet to explore patterns of release
over time and across various socio-demographic groups. More-
over, 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
This inquiry examines the relationship between the critical
features that introduce inequity in sentencing and the compo-
nents 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 compo-
nents of release. Differences do exist between racial groups for
each component, and the differences enable the masking of dis-
parities 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 deliv-
ered 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 con-
clude with a discussion of the findings.
468 Hidden Disparities

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