Refocusing on Gender: Can Focal Concerns Theory Explain Gender Disparities in Sentencing Outcomes?

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Focal concerns theory argues that sentencing decisions reflect judges' beliefs about three primary considerations: blameworthiness of the defendant, protection of the community, and practical concerns. This perspective has been used as the theoretical foundation in an abundance of research and has proven particularly useful as a framework for explaining sentencing disparities related to offenders' demographic characteristics. Little work, however, has been able to incorporate perceptual measures of the three focal concerns into studies of sentencing outcomes and social inequality. This study uses a dataset that combines official county court records with case-level judicial surveys to conduct a more direct test of the focal concerns theory of judicial decision-making. It measures judicial assessments of each focal concern for each court case and then evaluates the extent to which these assessments explain gender disparities in two sentencing decisions: the decision to incarcerate, and the determination of sentence length.