Evaluating Racial Disparities Across Multiple Dispositional Outcomes in the Criminal Court System for Felony Cases
Wilson, Theodore Henry
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This dissertation explored the extent to which the court system provides equal justice, or is race neutral, across primary dispositional case outcomes: diversions, dismissals, acquittals, convictions without custodial sentences, and convictions with custodial sentences. Failing to consider racial disparities in the broader array of dispositional outcomes for felony cases entering the court can mask or hide discriminatory practices occurring for one outcome, but not the others. A race neutral court system requires more than a race neutral sentencing decision. Dominant theories of the court that are typically limited to final sentencing decisions are expanded and integrated with alternative theoretical frameworks for these additional dispositional outcomes. This work takes focal concerns theory and the liberation hypothesis as a theoretical foundation that is supplemented with implicit bias, stereotypes, organizational attribution theory, organizational efficiency theory, and heuristics to construct a theoretical framework for the current work. While these mechanisms could not be tested by this dissertation, these theoretical discussions offered specific hypotheses concerning racial disparities in the evaluated dispositional outcomes. The first of two methods was directed at evaluating differences between case factors and the range of dispositional outcomes explicitly with multinomial modeling techniques. The second method was directed at the cumulative disadvantage research in calculating conditional probabilities by race for receiving a custodial sentence for charged felony cases while matching exactly on current offense and prior arrest levels. Results impart divergent racial disparities for different dispositional outcomes. Minority defendants, and black defendants in particular, were found to be more likely to receive a dismissal, an acquittal, and a conviction with a custodial sentence, but less likely to receive a diversion or a conviction without a custodial sentence. These results were strongest for drug sales crimes for both blacks and Hispanics as compared against white defendants. Disparities favoring white defendants in the total probability of receiving a custodial sentence were greater when sampling on conviction as opposed to arrest. Racial disparities in the total probability of receiving a custodial sentence varied tremendously by offense type, and were not found to be monotonic. Implications and avenues for future research are discussed.