A Practical Measure of Offence Seriousness: Sentence Severity

In the next several postings, I am going to serialize a paper that was probably written about 30 years ago, while I was still working at the Ontario Correctional Institute. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been published. I expect that I will be presenting it here without its tables, due to the ddifficulty (for me) of putting the tables into a form that will transcribe easily to this blog.

A Practical Measure of Offence Seriousness: Sentence Severity

Douglas Quirk, Verna Nutbrown and Reg Reynolds Ontario Correctional Institute, Brampton, Ontario.



Scaled values of offence seriousness obtained from the National Survey of Crime Severity in the U.S.A. were used as the dependent measure to determine whether sentence severity (sentence length), as imposed by the Ontario courts on the basis of the Criminal Code of Canada, might serve as an adequate predictor of offence seriousness. A Pearson Product-Moment correlation coefficient of 0.84 was found for a sample of nineteen offenses. Sentence severity appeared to meet the requirements of a useful tool for correctional programme evaluation research by a number of criteria such as reliability, validity, meaningfulness, discriminability, accessibility, practicality and additivity. Some practical problems affecting the measurement of offence seriousness by means of sentence severity were addressed. Tables of ratios of offence seriousness and ratios of sentence severity for pairs of offenses were also presented to assist potential users in choosing the most appropriate scales for their needs.


One of the most basic problems in both jurisprudence and corrections is the need to determine the seriousness of a criminal offence. In jurisprudence, the importance of this determination derives from the need to ensure that sentence is commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. In corrections, this determination is important for two reason: the need to assign priorities to offenders for purposes of correctional programming, and the need to evaluate programme effectiveness through observations of graded changes in offenders’ post-programme behaviours.

Previous attempts to assign degrees of seriousness to various types of offenses have resulted in tools which require often not readily accessible data, which are not easily transferable between jurisdictions, which have frequently been undiscriminating, and which have taken a form unsuitable for use with the most powerful statistical tools in evaluation research. In the present study it is proposed to determine whether sentence severity (sentence length) can be used as a measure of offence seriousness. Sentence severity is clearly a discrimi-nating measure, capable of being re-validated across jurisdictions, approximating interval scaling, and readily available for follow-up use in programme evaluation research in corrections. Some information is provided on the validation of the proposed measure against the best available published measure of offence seriousness.

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