A Practical Measure of Offence Seriousness: Sentence Severity

A Practical Measure of Offence Seriousness: Sentence Severity , continued


The foremost requirement for an optimally useful and meaningful interval measure of offence seriousness is a continuous physical scale having equal units as the base for comparison. The Law Encounter Severity Scale (Witherspoon et al., 1973) considered the dollar costs of various levels of involvement with the justice system. The NSCS included items scaled for dollar values as well. It is also possible that subjects in the NSCS survey used an implicit scale of values based on dollar amounts for judging criminal events. But dollar values as base scaling are likely to create some difficulties. Temporal and regional variations in economic climate are likely to create error in subjective valuations. For example, a crime associated with a given dollar figure today cannot be compared meaningfully to a crime of a similar dollar value committed ten years ago, unless, of course, adjustments are made to take into account the change in the purchasing power of the dollar over the time period. Exchange rates across international boundaries create additional problems. At the level of the individual, raters from differing socio-economic levels are likely to place differing values on dollar figures. Thus, error of measurement can affect both the base scale itself and judgements made on the base scale.

In seeking a means to measure offence seriousness which is easier and more practical to use in programme evaluation than the NSCS scale and which avoids the problems associated with use of dollar values, we examined the kinds of information about offenders and their offenses commonly and relatively easily available to correctional workers. The most likely source of information about offenders’ pre-programme and post-programme offenses available to correctional researchers is the central inmate files maintained by correctional systems. In addition to identification data, inmate files from central record sources are apt to contain little more than: 1) a listing of an offender’s offenses and their dates; 2) a record of conviction or non- conviction; 3) the disposition or sentence imposed on each offence; 4) the dates of sentence start and release. Offenses are nominal or categorical data. Offence counts or frequencies are at best ordinal data. Dates of offending or re-offending, along with dates of incarceration and release, provide data distributed on an equal-units physical scale of days (on the street). As suggested earlier, however, this latter information is less concerned with recidivism and offence seriousness than with something akin to resistance to recidivism or to programme failure.

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