MINDING THE GAP: AN EVALUATION OF THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF EVIDENCE-BASED SENTENCING ON SOCIAL INEQUALITY
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Social inequality has been a popular topic of inquiry in the criminal sentencing literature for decades, but the effects of innovations like evidence-based sentencing on inequality have not been investigated. Evidence-based sentencing, the use of actuarial assessments to inform sentencing decisions, is a data-driven approach to sentencing that highlights public safety, promotes more selective and effective use of incarceration, and may foster both transparency and objectivity in punishment decisions. However, the practice is not without its critics, and one of the more prominent criticisms of evidence-based sentencing is that it will worsen social inequality in sentencing. This dissertation uses simulation procedures and a unique dataset that combines official court records from Connecticut with results from Level of Service Inventory-Revised (LSI-R) risk assessments to inform that concern. An assessment of disparities in Connecticut’s current sentencing system reveals disparities according to race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status (SES) that cannot be fully explained by legal and case processing characteristics or by risk factors drawn directly from the LSI-R. Several risk factors, most notably those related to offenders’ residential situation, companions, mental health, and attitudes toward convention and the criminal justice system, also have their own direct influences on punishment. Disparities in LSI-R composite and domain scores are observable as well. While similar composite scores mask substantial variation across domain scores for racial, ethnic, and gender groups, low-SES offenders receive higher scores in every domain and in the composite, regardless of which SES indicator is considered. A simulation procedure further shows that disparities in the LSI-R have the potential to translate into disparities in punishment that exceed those already present in Connecticut, particularly in the decision to incarcerate. This dissertation suggests that evidence-based sentencing may come at a social cost. It underscores the need for more empirical research on evidence-based sentencing and sources of sociodemographic inequality in punishment. It also invites discussion about the treatment of low-SES offenders in the criminal justice system, about whether actuarial risk assessments designed for correctional settings can and should be adapted to inform sentencing decisions, and about the tenuous balance between effectiveness and fairness in sentencing.