Sentencing and State‐Level Racial and Ethnic Contexts

Date01 December 2015
Published date01 December 2015
Sentencing and State-Level Racial and Ethnic
Xia Wang Daniel P. Mears
Sentencing studies have incorporated social context in studying sentencing
decisions, but to date the bulk of prior work has focused almost exclusively on
county context. An unresolved question is whether there also may be state-
level effects on sentencing. Drawing from the minority threat perspective, we
examine (1) whether state-level racial and ethnic contexts affect sentencing,
(2) whether this effect amplifies the effect of county-level racial and ethnic
contexts on sentencing, and (3) whether the interaction of county-level and
state-level contextual effects is greater for minorities than for whites. Analysis
of State Court Processing Statistics and other data indicates that state-level
racial and ethnic contexts are associated with sentencing outcomes and that
this effect may differ by outcome (e.g., incarceration versus sentence length)
and by type of context (e.g., racial or ethnic). The study’s findings and their
implications are discussed.
Sentencing disparity has constituted a central focus of crimino-
logical and legal studies scholarship. Recent research has high-
lighted the salience of social context on sentencing decisions,
including disparities in sentencing. This work has identified
many factors—such as racial and ethnic composition, unemploy-
ment 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 sen-
tencing. Specifically, it remains unknown whether state social con-
text 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.
The authors thank the Editors and anonymous reviewers for their constructive feed-
back and insights. Please direct all correspondence to Xia Wang, Arizona State University,
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 411 N. Central Ave, Suite 600, Phoenix, AZ
85004; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 49, Number 4 (2015)
C2015 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
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 dif-
ferences” 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 stud-
ies 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 per-
spective 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 deci-
sions, whether these effects amplify county-level effects on sen-
tencing, 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 analy-
sis—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
884 State-Level Racial and Ethnic Contexts
which race and ethnicity at multiple levels of analysis can interact
to contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing.
In recent decades, sentencing research has turned to a focus
on contextual factors and their influence on sentencing decisions
(Ulmer 2012). This new direction has its roots in the court com-
munity perspective. According to this perspective, courtroom
decision making varies across different contexts (Eisenstein et al.
1988; Eisenstein and Jacob 1977; Ulmer 1997). The challenge
has been in identifying specific contextual factors that affect
courtroom decision making. In general, extant studies have
focused primarily on county factors in examining sentencing
decisions. That is not surprising. According to the court commu-
nity perspective, for example, judges’ attitudes toward defend-
ants, crime, and criminal justice have at least some
correspondence with local political attitudes and culture, regard-
less of how judges are selected (Eisenstein and Jacob 1977: 45).
In addition, because counties are responsible for building and
maintaining court houses and other physical facilities for courts,
courtroom actors must work together to compete for scarce
resources and they must learn how to adapt to each other.
Judges, for example, may need to adapt to pressures from prose-
cutors and defense attorneys, prosecutors may need to adapt to
pressures from the police, and so on (Eisenstein and Jacob 1977).
These local court communities may in turn foster their own sub-
stantive rationalities that may shape sentencing outcomes and
processes (Savelsberg 1992; Ulmer and Kramer 1996).
In short, the court community perspective and a growing
body of research have highlighted the importance of identifying
contextual effects on a range of individual-level outcomes, includ-
ing sentencing (Britt 2000; Fearn 2005; Johnson 2005, 2006;
Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002; Ulmer and John-
son 2004). Notably, however, little attention has been paid to
state-level contextual effects on sentencing. This research gap is
significant for several reasons.
First, criminal justice policies and laws are set predominately
at the state level. Departments of corrections, parole boards, and
sentencing commissions are state-level agencies, and sentencing
laws and reforms typically are set at the state level (Shane-
DuBow, Brown, and Olsen 1985). Also, states vary in their state
court organization. Typically, court organization is controlled and
regulated through statewide agencies, although states may have
different systems for selecting trial court judges (Rottman et al.
Wang & Mears 885

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