CAN SOCIAL PROTESTS CHANGE LOCAL SENTENCING PATTERNS? EVIDENCE FROM THE 2015 BALTIMORE UPRISING
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Research examining the effects of violent protests has long produced mixed results and more recent studies are no more definitive. Very little work explicitly considers their potential impact on the criminal justice system, and particularly on the courts, the institution that primarily distributes punishment and exerts formal social control. At the same time, criminologists and sociologists agree that courts do not operate in a social vacuum but are embedded in layered contexts. Although some court research examines contextual effects, it has treated them as relatively inert over time, and little is known about how court decisions may deviate from their patterns in the face of sudden political turmoil. Bringing together varied lines of theories, this research discusses the effect of social protests on criminal courts, using data from the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy (MSCCSP) to examine local sentencing pattern shifts in the aftermath of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent social unrest that follwed. This study analyzes (a) whether the overall punitiveness of courts changed after the event, (b) whether the change disparately impacted different racial and ethnic groups, and (c) whether these effects vary geographically across the state of Maryland.