Racial stereotypes, gendered crimes, and judicial discretion: A multi-level examination of the effect of race and gender on sentencing disparities



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The American justice system is predicated on the assumption of equality under the law. Central to this assumption is the impartiality of judges. Notably, this decision-making process is performed in situational and environmental contexts with unique goals and normative procedural patterns. As such, it is reasonable to assume that a variety of individual case and offender characteristics, as well as, court and county level factors interact to influence judicial decision making. While decades of research has examined the relationship between extralegal factors like race/ethnicity and gender on sentencing outcomes, this line of inquiry has almost exclusively focused on offender characteristics, neglecting the role that judicial attributes and other indicators of racial and gender inequality may play in these decisions. Thus, the current study extends this line of research by examining the effect of judicial attributes and county level characteristics on sentencing outcomes. Using 2013-2015 Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing data, the current study investigates the extent to which racial and gender disparities exist among stereotypically racialized and gendered offenses. Additionally, this study examines whether judicial race and gender, as well as measures of county race and gender equity influences disparate treatment in the incarceration and sentence length decisions. Moreover, this study explores whether the effect of offender characteristics is conditioned by these contextual level factors. Findings suggest that disparate treatment may be more pronounced in racialized and gendered offenses. However, sentencing severity may be moderated by contextual factors associated with the sentencing process. Specifically, the extent to which racial and gender disparities are observed may be a consequence of judge background experiences, as well as, sociopolitical county characteristics.



Sentencing, Race, Gender, Judicial discretion, Judge demographics, Women’s absolute status, Black absolute status, Disparate treatment