Courtroom Context and Sentencing

  • Christine L. Arazan
  • William D. Bales
  • Thomas G. Blomberg


This study provides an evaluation of the major policy shift in sentencing practices over the past half-century – namely the shift from indeterminate to determinant sentencing policies and the use of sentencing guidelines. The theoretical literature on courtroom organization and focal concerns informs this evaluation of determinate sentencing practices in Florida. Drawing from prior theoretical and empirical research, hierarchical linear and generalized linear models are estimated to assess courtroom effects on individual level sentencing outcomes. The findings document that location matters when sentenced in Florida. Specifically, the likelihood of being sentenced to prison and the length of sentence varies across counties, even after controlling for individual case and offender characteristics and a variety of contextual characteristics. Additionally, the influence of legal and extra-legal factors on prison in/out and sentence length decisions varies significantly across counties. Several court characteristics, including court size, caseload pressure and trial rate assert direct influence on a county’s likelihood of prison in/out and mean sentence length decisions.


Sentencing Multilevel Court Sentence length In/out 


  1. Albonetti, C. A. (1991). An integration of theories to explain judicial discretion. Social Problems, 38(2), 247–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Albonetti, C. A. (1997). Sentencing under the federal sentencing guidelines: Effects of defendant characteristics, guilty pleas, and departures on sentence outcomes for drug offenses, 1991-1992. Law and Society Review, 31(4), 789–822.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bontrager, S., Bales, W., & Chiricos, T. (2005). Race, ethnicity, threat and the labeling of convicted felons. Criminology, 43(3), 589–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Britt, C. L. (2000). Social context and racial disparities in punishment decisions. Justice Quarterly, 17(4), 707–732.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bryk, A. S., & Raudenbush, S. W. (1992). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc..Google Scholar
  6. Bushway, S., Johnson, B. D., & Slocum, L. A. (2007). Is the magic still there? The use of the Heckman two-step correction for selection bias in criminology. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 23(2), 151–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bushway, S. D., & Piehl, A. M. (2001). Judging judicial discretion: Legal factors and racial discrimination in sentencing. Law & Society Review, 35(4), 733–764.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Caravelis, C., Chiricos, T., & Bales, B. (2011). Static and dynamic indicators of minority threat in sentencing outcomes: A multi-level analysis. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 27(4), 405–425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Caravelis, C., Chiricos, T., & Bales, B. (2013). Race, ethnicity, threat and the designation of career offenders. Justice Quarterly, 30(5), 869–894.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Claiborne v. United States, 551 US 87 (2007).Google Scholar
  11. Dixon, J. (1995). The organizational context of criminal sentencing. American Journal of Sociology, 100(5), 1157–1198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Eisenstein, J., Flemming, R. B., & Nardulli, P. F. (1999). The contours of justice: Communities and their courts. Boston, MA: Little Brown.Google Scholar
  13. Engen, R. L., & Gainey, R. R. (2000a). Conceptualizing legally relevant factors under guidelines: A reply to Ulmer. Criminology, 38(4), 1245–1252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Engen, R. L., & Gainey, R. R. (2000b). Modeling the effects of legally relevant and extralegal factors under sentencing guidelines: The rules have changed. Criminology, 38(4), 1207–1229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fearn, N. E. (2005). A multilevel analysis of community effects on criminal sentencing. Justice Quarterly, 22(4), 452–487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Florida Department of Corrections. (2006). Florida's Criminal Punishment Code: A Comparative Assessment (FY 2005–2006). Retrieved from:
  17. Heckman, J. (1979). Sample selection bias as a specification error. Econometrica, 47, 153–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hester, R., & Sevigny, E. L. (2016). Court communities in local context: A multilevel analysis of felony sentencing in South Carolina. Journal of Crime and Justice, 39(1), 55–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Holleran, D., & Spohn, C. (2004). On the use of the total incarceration variable in sentencing research. Criminology, 42(1), 211–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Johnson, B. D. (2005). Contextual disparities in guidelines departures: Courtroom social contexts, guidelines compliance, and extralegal disparities in criminal sentencing. Criminology, 43(3), 761–796.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Johnson, B. D. (2006). The multilevel context of criminal sentencing: Integrating judge- and county-level influences. Criminology, 44(2), 259–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kautt, P. M. (2002). Location, location, location: Interdistrict and intercircuit variation in sentencing outcomes for federal drug-trafficking offenses. Justice Quarterly, 19(4), 633–671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kramer, J. H., & Ulmer, J. T. (2009). Sentencing guidelines: Lessons from Pennsylvania. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.Google Scholar
  24. Maddan, S., & Hartley, R. D. (2018). Towards the development of a standardized focal concerns theory of sentencing. In J. T. Ulmer & M. S. Bradley (Eds.), Handbook on punishment decisions: Locations of disparity. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  25. Mandery, E. J. (2017). Gregg at 40. Southwestern Law Review, 46(2), 275–302.Google Scholar
  26. Michels, R. (1915). Political parties. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.Google Scholar
  27. Mitchell, O. J. (2005). A meta-analysis of race and sentencing research: Explaining the inconsistencies. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 21, 439–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. National Research Council. (1983). Research on sentencing: The search for reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  29. Peterson, R. D., & Hagan, J. (1984). Changing conceptions of race: Towards an account of anomalous findings of sentencing research. American Sociological Review, 49(1), 56–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338 (2007).Google Scholar
  31. Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. R. (1993). Structural variations in juvenile court processing: Inequality, the underclass and social control. Law and Society Review, 27, 285–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69, 99–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Simon, H. A. (1957). Administrative behavior: A study of decision making processes in administrative organizations. New York, NY: Macmillian.Google Scholar
  34. Spohn, C. (2000). National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Thirty years of sentencing reform: The quest for a racially neutral sentencing process. In J. Horney (Ed.), Criminal Justice 2000, Volume 3 (pp. 427–502). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  35. Steffensmeier, D., & Demuth, S. (2000). Ethnicity and sentencing outcomes in U.S. federal courts: Who is punished more harshly? American Sociological Review, 65(5), 705–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Steffensmeier, D., Kramer, J., & Streifel, C. (1993). Gender and imprisonment decisions. Criminology, 31(3), 411–446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Steffensmeier, D., & Painter-Davis, N. (2018). Focal concerns theory as conceptual tool for studying intersectionality in sentencing disparities: Focus on gender and race along with age. In J. T. Ulmer & M. S. Bradley (Eds.), Handbook on punishment decisions: Locations of disparity. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  38. Tonry, M. (2009). The mostly unintended effects of mandatory penalties: Two centuries of consistent findings. Crime and Justice, 38, 65–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Ulmer, J. T. (2000). The rules have changed -- so proceed with caution: A comment on Engen and Gainey's method for modeling sentencing outcomes under guidelines. Criminology, 38(4), 1231–1243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ulmer, J. T. (2012). Recent developments and new directions in sentencing research. Justice Quarterly, 29(1), 1–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Ulmer, J. T., & Johnson, B. (2004). Sentencing in context: A multilevel analysis. Criminology, 42(1), 137–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ulmer, J. T., & Kramer, J. H. (1996). Court communities under sentencing guidelines: Dilemmas of formal rationality and sentencing disparity. Criminology, 34(3), 383–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. United States v. Booker, 543 US 220 (2005).Google Scholar
  44. Wang, X., & Mears, D. P. (2010). A multilevel test of minority threat effects on sentencing. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 26(2), 191–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wang, X., & Mears, D. P. (2015). Sentencing and state-level racial and ethnic contexts. Law and Society Review, 49(4), 883–915.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Weidner, R. R., Frase, R. S., & Pardoe, I. (2004). Explaining sentence severity in large urban counties: A multilevel analysis of contextual and case-level factors. The Prison Journal, 84(2), 184–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Weidner, R. R., Frase, R. S., & Schultz, J. S. (2005). The impact of contextual factors on the decision to imprison in large urban jurisdictions: A multilevel analysis. Crime & Delinquency, 51(3), 400–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Wildeman, C., & Wang, E. A. (2017). Mass incarceration, public health, and widening inequality in the USA. Lancet, 389, 1464–1474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Word, D. L., & Perkins, C. R. (1996). Building Spanish surname list for the 1990’s – a new approach to an old problem. U.S. Census Bureau Technical Working Paper No. 13. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.Google Scholar
  50. Zatz, M. (2000). National Criminal Justice Reference Service. The convergence of race, ethnicity, gender, and class on court decision making: Looking toward the null. In J. Horney (Ed.), Criminal Justice 2000 (pp. 503–552). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Southern Criminal Justice Association 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminology and Criminal JusticeNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA
  2. 2.College of Criminology and Criminal JusticeFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA
  3. 3.College of Criminology and Criminal JusticeFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

Personalised recommendations