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Felony Sentencing and Jail Characteristics

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 1993
Using data obtained from two nationwide county surveys conducted in 1988, this paper addresses the effect of local jail conditions on a judge's choice of sentence in a felony case, particularly the decision to sentence a felon to jail rather than to prison or probation.

The analysis specifically involved a national survey of felony cases sentenced in State courts and a census of county jails. Data showed that the likelihood of a jail sentence was lower in counties with jails under court order to limit the number of inmates. Although this probability was true in the country as a whole, no relationship was found between such orders and the use of jail sentences in the 75 largest counties that accounted for about half of all felony convictions. Data indicated, however, even after accounting for such court orders, that certain opportunities and resources available to jail inmates influenced judges to sentence more felons to jail. This influence was manifested statistically in three ways: more split probation sentences among probation cases, more jail terms among split probation cases, and more jail and fewer prison sentences among nonprobation cases. The availability of opportunities and resources in county jails appeared to have less effect on sentencing in the more serious cases. Findings suggest a model of judicial decisionmaking in felony cases in which certain characteristics of a county's jail system will encourage felony judges to use the jail sanction more versus prison or straight probation. Additionally, the data indicate that judges may be aware of opportunities for and beneficial services to local jail inmates. As a result, this awareness may incline them to sentence felons to jail rather than to some other sanction. It appears that the model of positive judicial influence fits the data better for property and drug trafficking convictions than for more serious violent crimes. The report also contains tables and

Date Published: June 1, 1993