The current study attempted to add to extant literature by examining extralegal factors and analyzing their effect on criminal sentencing decisions. Specifically, the study predicted that the independent variables of race, age, and gender would have varying associations with sentencing decisions for driving under the influence (DUI) charges (i.e., guilt, fines, unsupervised or supervised probation, and active time in correctional custody). The intersection of race, age, and gender was especially expected to have a significant relationship with guilt, since previous research has found that being a young, black male often leads to a more severe sentence (Steffensmeier et al., 1998). While the logistic regression models produced multiple significant relationships, some of the proposed hypotheses, which were postulated based on findings of previous research, were not supported by the statistical analysis of the sample provided by the present study. Additionally, the two-way ANOVA indicated no significant relationship between the interaction of race and gender on sentencing as well. There are many possible explanations as to why the expected relationships were not supported by the analysis, both relating to circumstances within the study and social forces outside the control of research.

As previously stated in the results, the binary logistic regression models of the guilt variable did not provide any significant findings. In regards to the first hypothesis that older offenders would be less likely to be found guilty or receive any of the aforementioned punishments, most of the models did not support the hypothesis. However, age was found to be slightly significant in the Watauga County model of unsupervised probation, meaning that older defendants had lower odds of receiving unsupervised probation than younger defendants. No other associations with age were found among the remaining dependent variable analyses. The lack of findings may be attributed to the small sample size (N=200) of the study. There was only one slightly significant relationship in support of the second hypothesis, which stated that males would be more likely than females to be found guilty and receive fines, probation, or active time. In the Watauga County model for active time in custody, males were found to have slightly higher odds of receiving a sentence of active time than females. Otherwise, there were no significant relationships found in any of the models in regards to gender. This issue may be partly accounted for by the lack of gender diversity in the sample population, as 81 percent of the defendants were male.

The third hypothesis, which stated that nonwhite offenders would be more likely to be found guilty and receive fines, probation, or active time than white offenders, was not fully supported by the results of the analyses. Only the Ashe County model for supervised probation found a slight relationship with race, as whites were more likely to receive supervised probation than nonwhites. Based on previous research, this relationship was not expected, as minority defendants have typically been subjected to more severe sentences than whites (e.g. Blair et al., 2004; Johnson, 2003; Steffensmeier & Demuth, 2001; Thomson & Zingraff, 1981; Walker et al., 2012). This may be attributed to the fact that a majority of the offenders (83.5%) were white.

Lack of racial diversity may have inhibited the proposed relationships for nonwhite defendants from being statistically significant.

One variable that was notable was type of legal counsel. The counsel for defendants was found to have an association with unsupervised and supervised probation, as well as active time in custody. In both the full sample model and Ashe County model of unsupervised probation, defendants using privately retained attorneys had higher odds of receiving an unsupervised probation sentence, which is the most lenient sentence observed in the current study. This relationship was expected, as it is commonly believed that defendants who use a privately retained attorney fare better than those with no assistance of counsel at all (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011). Previous research has also found that privately retained attorneys often obtain more favorable outcomes for their clients than court-appointed attorneys or public defenders (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011). For supervised probation, the relationships regarding type of legal counsel changed. The Ashe County model supported a significant, negative relationship with retained attorneys, meaning that those with retained attorneys had a lower odd of receiving a supervised probation term than those with a court-appointed attorney or no attorney. The entire sample model of supervised probation also found a negative relationship with retained attorneys. This finding posits that for the entire sample, those who had some sort of attorney had lower odds of receiving a supervised probation sentence than those with no attorney at all. These results support the previous research that states that defendants who are under retained legal representation in the court typically fare better than those who choose to go without an attorney or have an appointed attorney (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011).

The ANOVA testing of the interactional effects of race and gender on each of the five dependent variables found no significant results, despite the fact that previous research indicates gender and race have a stronger effect on sentencing decisions when they are accounted for together (Steffensmeier et al., 1998; Steffensmeier & Demuth, 2006). This finding may be attributed to the small sample size used in the study, as well as the lack of diversity of race and gender among the sample population. However, this finding might also be positive in that it may indicate that judges did not hand down sentences based on extralegal factors in these cases, but rather based on the facts and circumstances of the case. Previous research has indicated that judges often utilize both legal and extralegal factors in their sentencing of defendants (Bontrageret al., 2005; Demuth, 2003; Johnson, 2003; Mustard, 2001; Steen et al., 2005; Steffensmeier et al., 1998; Steffensmeier & Demuth, 2001), however it has been noted that race, gender, and age often play a large part in their decisions. In the current study, it appears that legal factors, specifically type of legal counsel, have a much stronger influence on sentencing than extralegal factors, such as race, gender, or age.

Overall, the current study’s findings were limited due to small sample size (N=200), limited diversity of defendant race (83.5% were white), a majority of defendants were male (81%), and most of the defendants were found guilty of their charges (79%). The two counties sampled have total populations ranging from around 27,000 in Ashe and 53,000 in Watauga (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015a; U.S. Census Bureau, 2015b). In Ashe County, about 97 percent of residents are white. Watauga County is similar in racial composition as well (95.3%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015a; U.S. Census Bureau, 2015b). Therefore, the sample obtained was somewhat representative of the total population of the areas, with the exception of gender, which is evenly distributed across the two counties as 50 percent female and 50 percent male. The lack of gender disparity in the sample can be attributed to the fact that men typically commit more crime than women (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996).

Despite the ability of criminal court judges to use their discretion in sentencing offenders, it seems that driving under the influence charges are not sentenced in discretionary or discriminatory ways in our study. The current study found that overall, most defendants were found guilty of driving under the influence and were given the appropriate penalty based on the offense level. Although research has found that ever since the creation of the United States Sentencing Commission in 1984 (Stith, 2008) and the following mandates and policies implemented in states and localities thereafter, judges still continue to exercise discretion.

However, it seems that driving under the influence charges are treated uniformly, at least in western North Carolina, and are given very little discretionary attention. The results from the current study may reflect the opinions and social movements that have occurred over the past few decades that bring drunk driving in the spotlight and promote the importance of strict, severe punishment for those who commit the offense.

Prior to the 1960’s, drunk driving was viewed by the public and the media as humorous and somewhat harmless (Fell & Voas, 2006). Accidents resulting from intoxicated drivers were often said to be caused by “driver error” during this time (Fell & Voas, 2006, p. 195). Even after the federal government began implementing policies regarding blood alcohol content levels and driving under the influence enforcement, the public still did not see drunk driving as a pressing social issue. It was not until 1980, when Candy Lightner’s daughter was struck and killed by a drunk driver, that the media and the public began devoting their attention to the topic. After her daughter’s death, Lightner created Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD (Fell & Voas, 2006). MADD started as a small group that soon spread across America, advocating strict punishments for driving under the influence offenders, as well as victim assistance. Over a thousand new laws have been implemented as a result of MADD’s work, all relating to the prevention and punishment of drinking and driving (El-Guebaly, 2005). Media portrayals of drinking and driving changed from what once was social, carefree drinking to drinking responsibly and always having a designated driver available (Fell & Voas, 2006). Society began viewing drunk driving as a serious criminal offense, not a humorous mistake, after the creation of MADD, and continues to do so today.

Perhaps the strongest driving force behind MADD and groups with similar philanthropies, such as Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) and Students Against Drunk Driving

(SADD), is their ability to influence social opinions (Schmidt, 2013). The stories behind many of these organizations, such as that of Candy Lightner’s daughter, touch the heart of citizens and urge them to become involved in the push against drinking and driving. These organizations, specifically MADD, use emotion and fear to push their agenda forward and encourage communities across the nation to join the fight against drunk driving. Judges may have been impacted by the efforts of these anti-drunk driving organizations and subconsciously use these emotions and feelings of disdain in their sentencing decisions of driving under the influence offenders. Criminal justice researchers have found that social opinions and movements often influence the actions of justice system actors (Travis III, 2012). Judges are no exception to this rule, and their punitiveness towards drunk driving may be a result of social influence.

MADD has not only had success in motivating society to act against drunk driving and drunk drivers. The organization has also successfully influenced legislators and decision makers in regards to alcohol laws. They encouraged states to lengthen the license suspension period for DUI offenders. They helped pass multiple laws, such as zero tolerance for youth laws, .08 blood alcohol content laws, and increased sanctions for repeat offenders (Fell & Zoas, 2006). MADD even began a court monitoring process of which the organization hoped would increase sanctions and promote rehabilitation of the offender as well. The actions of MADD are still seen today in the American court system, as exhibited by both the aforementioned guidelines and the current social push against drunk driving.

Limitations and Future Research

There are multiple limitations to this study. External validity may be an issue because of the regional characteristics of the data that was collected and analyzed. While the results of the analysis may be generalized for western North Carolina, they should not be generalized any

farther. The sample may not be representative of other parts of the state, let alone any other part of the country. Sampling error may also be an issue, as the data collected for this study may not have been representative of the entire population of disposed cases in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. The current study was not able to control for severity of offense in regards to mitigating and aggravating factors, which may have affected the significance of the results.

There may exist intervening or antecedent variables that were not controlled for within the analysis that were effecting the relationships found by the results. A spurious relationship may not be detected through the data analysis. Other variables, such as socioeconomic status, may have affected any relationship that would be found to be statistically significant. Because of the limited information available in the court files that were used to collect the data for this study, controlling for socioeconomic status would be difficult, as the files did not include any information on employment or marriage status.

In conclusion, the current study attempted to investigate the effect of race, gender, and age on judicial sentencing decisions. Using binary logistic regression, models were created based on the dependent variables of guilt, fines, unsupervised probation, probation, and active time in correctional custody. Results of the study found the strongest relationships between the variable of retained counsel in the models of unsupervised probation, supervised probation, and active time. Overall, no significant associations were found in relation to the three proposed hypotheses; however, the present study supplements the existing literature by adding a regional aspect to the study of sentencing discretion and disparity. The study also gives an insight to the usage of sentencing guidelines and the impact that social forces and causes can have on the criminal justice system in America. Although only driving under the influence charges were evaluated in the current study, the results show that in western North Carolina, judges take charges very seriously and follow guidelines based on the severity of the offense. Discretion seems to be seldom used in these cases.

In future research, the study should be replicated in order to enhance reliability. Perhaps the study should be replicated in a different area of the state in order to examine the conviction patterns of driving while impaired cases across North Carolina. Other states could utilize the methods of this study in order to analyze the effects of race, gender, and age in their communities as well. A variety of criminal offenses could be included in order to provide a broader look into judicial sentencing decisions. Another call for future research is the need to compare social class with conviction rates. Though type of attorney could somewhat allow an inference to be made regarding social class or wealth of the defendants, the data used in the current study could not accurately account for social class. However, a study involving a survey instrument sent to those who have been charged in the state with a crime could. Another variable that is important to implement in future studies is offense level or severity. Because the current study used cases in which defendants were found both guilty and not guilty, offense severity was not included in the regressions, as those cases in which the defendant was found not guilty did not have an offense level noted. A study using only cases involving guilty defendants would be able to properly investigate the importance of mitigating and aggravating factors.  Future research could also look at the difference between district court decisions and higher court decisions, such as superior or appellate court dispositions, to see if the lack of discretionary decision-making is apparent in the higher courts as well.


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University Distinguished Graduate Award, East Tennessee State University