My research interests are in courts and sentencing, punishment policy, risk assessment at sentencing, and discretion and decision-making, particularly among judges and prosecutors and other courtroom professionals. My work has appeared in Criminology; Journal of Quantitative Criminology; Oxford Handbooks; The Prison Journal; Criminal Justice Policy Review; Corrections: Policy, Practice and Research; and as chapters in several Oxford University Press books. For a full listing, please see my CV.
Courtroom Workgroups and Sentencing Norms
Most sentencing research in the past several decades has analyzed sentencing in jurisdictions that have sentencing guidelines. One of my contributions to the field has come through a series of papers that investigates practices in a non-guidelines state (South Carolina). In an article with co-author Eric Sevigny (JCJ paper), we found little evidence of county-level differences in norms and sentencing outcomes in South Carolina. This finding was in stark contrast to research from other jurisdictions and generated my interest in discovering why outcomes seemed so uniform in this state.
Subsequently, I interviewed state trial judges to gain insight into norms and practices that the quantitative data couldn’t provide. In an article published in Criminology, I relate the findings from these interviews. I discovered that the uniformity across counties is largely attributable to two things. First is the practice of judicial rotation where all judges travel among the state’s 46 counties to hold court. This system of rotation leads to defendants “shopping” for lenient “plea judges.” Basically, if a defendant is considering pleading guilty but the current judge is perceived as harsh (a “hanging judge”), the defendant can simply wait to enter a plea in a subsequent week when a more favorable judge (a lenient “plea judge”) comes to town. Prosecutors actually don’t mind this because it leads to efficient processing of cases. And some pragmatic judges who wouldn’t necessarily be considered very harsh or very lenient adjust their sentences downward to the norms of the plea judges to keep cases moving along—no need to have plea court stalled for a week while everyone waits on one of the plea judges. There continue to be some punitive judges, but they are often assigned to trials rather than plea court (where 98% of convictions are disposed of). So the plea judges set a floor of standard sentencing norms which cut across all counties in the state. The second unifying influence also has to do with rotation but is more about social processes and court culture. Since judges travel, they regularly interact with attorneys and other judges all across the state. This statewide interaction engenders more statewide court culture norms. Ideas are shared and spread, and aberrant practices are suppressed.
Methodologically this work is notable for its mixed-methods approach and for answering decades-long calls for more qualitative sentencing research. In addition, some of my other work on sentencing in South Carolina analyzes race and gender disparities (CJPR paper). And an article published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology introduces a new approach for modeling sentence length outcomes (the zero-truncated negative binomial model); that paper demonstrates how that method yielded less biased results than the more traditional OLS model using a log transformed dependent variable.
Sentencing Guidelines and Offender Criminal History
Another of my interest areas is in punishment practices in sentencing guidelines jurisdictions. In particular I’m interested in comparing differences in how state sentencing commissions require judges to consider an offender’s prior record, in why prior record is important, and in the different consequences (including racial disparities, the aging prison population, and substantial fiscal impacts) that flow from these criminal history policies. My interest in this field stems from my time as Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota working with the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice on the Criminal History Project. We published the Criminal History Enhancement Sourcebook aimed at providing academic researchers and sentencing commissions with an exhaustive comparison of the different ways jurisdictions have implemented criminal history enhancements. I’ve also published several papers related to this project with Robina co-authors including a forthcoming paper that examines the underlying rationales for increasing punishment on account of a person’s prior record, and a paper (C:PPR) in which we surveyed the public and performed some experiments to gauge public views on prior record enhancements. I have another paper under review which uses survival analysis to examine the predictive validity of the Pennsylvania Prior Record Score, and several chapters with Professor Richard Frase in a forthcoming book on prior record enhancements under contract with Oxford University Press.
I’m currently involved in several projects that continue to explore these subjects. In the near future, I hope to turn my attention more fully to plea-bargaining and prosecutorial decision-making, and at some point, I’d like to return to issues related to police stops and searches and how interactions between police and the public impact citizen perceptions of legitimacy. Research related to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing can be found on the PCS website.
(Note: The information on this page relates to my personal academic research. The research discussed was not conducted in my capacity with the Commission on Sentencing and any views expressed do not reflect the views of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.)