Date of Award

1-1-2012

Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Department

Criminology and Criminal Justice

First Advisor

Eric L Sevigny

Abstract

This study examines the sentencing practices of the court communities of South Carolina. While numerous sentencing studies have examined predictors of sentencing operating at the individual offender level, recent sentencing studies have exhibited a renewed interest in the impact that judges and county context have on sentencing outcomes. Various theories have been developed to explain sentencing processes at each of these three levels--the offender, judge, and county--but these theories have been largely compartmentalized, focusing on the processes operating at one level in isolation. The current study demonstrates that the courts as communities perspective can be used to integrate theories at these three levels of analysis into a unifying theoretical framework. The findings indicate that in many respects the sentencing practices in South Carolina were consistent with findings from other jurisdictions: legal characteristics such as the seriousness of the offense and criminal history of the offender were important predictors of whether he or she was sent to prison and for how long. Case processing factors such as whether an offender pled guilty or was found guilty at trial also had a substantial impact on sentencing outcomes, as did extralegal characteristics such as age, race, and gender. In addition, this study confirms the importance of examining sentencing processes operating on multiple levels of analysis. The findings indicate that significant variation existed between judges on the decision to incarcerate offenders, while the length of sentence imposed against those who were incarcerated was quite uniform among judges. Caseload pressure and experience as a judge were both significant predictors of a judge's incarceration decision; judges with heavier caseloads were less likely to incarcerate, while longer tenured judges were more likely to imprison offenders. The county-level analyses indicated that sentences were remarkably uniform across counties, though some differences existed. Offenders sentenced in counties with heavier caseloads were less likely to be imprisoned, while offenders sentenced in counties that had experienced worsening socioeconomic conditions over the past ten-year period were more likely to be incarcerated. Overall, the picture of South Carolina's court communities that emerged suggests that the state's sentencing structure and legal culture worked to form a relatively close knit court community that was, in some respects, characterized by a statewide legal culture rather than a collection of distinct local legal cultures.

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