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Law and Human Behavior

, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 319–335 | Cite as

Transgression Wrongfulness Outweighs its Harmfulness as a Determinant of Sentence Severity

  • Adam L. Alter
  • Julia Kernochan
  • John M. Darley
Original Article

Abstract

When students suggest sentences for criminal offenders, do they rely more heavily on the harmfulness or on the wrongfulness of the offender's conduct? In Study 1, 116 Princeton University undergraduates rated the harmfulness and wrongfulness of, and suggested appropriate sentences for, a series of crimes. As expected, participants emphasized wrongfulness when choosing an appropriate criminal punishment. In Study 2, 33 Princeton undergraduates made similar ratings for violations of the University Honor Code, and rated their contempt for fabricated amendments to the Code that required sentencers to focus either only on harmfulness or only on wrongfulness. Again, sentences more closely reflected wrongfulness ratings, and participants were more contemptuous of the harmfulness-based proposal. We also consider the theoretical and practical implications of these findings for sentencing laws and policy.

Keywords

Psychology Sentencing Criminal law 

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Copyright information

© American Psychology-Law Society/Division 41 of the American Psychological Association 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adam L. Alter
    • 1
  • Julia Kernochan
    • 2
  • John M. Darley
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  2. 2.Yale Law SchoolCTUSA

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