A Practical Measure of Offence Seriousness: Sentence Severity

A Practical Measure of Offence Seriousness: Sentence Severity , continued

Sentence length is also based on a continuous physical scale of days and, in principle, sentence length ought to represent directly the judged seriousness of a criminal event. The advantages of using sentence length as a measure of offence seriousness are many, and include:

  1. It uses a reference base continuously distributed in equal units of measurement (days).
  2. It is the most readily available and easiest to obtain information about offenses. In most jurisdictions this information is likely to be fairly accurate and easily accessed.
  3. It is not capriciously derived. Sentence length is characteristically based upon (a) deliberations about sentence ranges among elected representatives of the community (the government in passing laws), (b) detailed documentation of sentencing precedents, (c) extensive and balanced consideration of the facts of a case during the trial, and (d) judicious consideration of all of the above by the sentencing judge. Theoretically, the sentence length assignment is likely to be subject to minimal error because of the standardization afforded by these considerations. Even pre- trial plea bargaining adds to the value of the outcome by ensuring that offenses which cannot reliably be proved are not completely ignored from sentence computations.
  4. It ought to represent offence seriousness meaningfully and in a discriminating way.

Not only is there a consistently demonstrated shared agreement among people about the seriousness of various crimes (Figlio, 1975), but also, in simulations, people tend to apply sterner sentences to crimes which are rated as more serious than to crimes rated as less serious (Klein et al., 1983). Moreover, sentence length, along with the type of sentence imposed (prison or probation), meaningfully reflect society’s values concerning the seriousness of criminal acts since they necessarily imply a dollar cost figure to be paid by the community in disposing of an offender and his offenses.

Thus, on the face of it, of the readily available types of data on offenders, it appears that sentence length best satisfies the requirements for a measure of offence seriousness, both for evaluation research (ease of access and practical simplicity) and for pure research (quantifiability, meaningfulness and discriminability). It remains to be established whether sentence severity as a measure of offence seriousness satisfies the additional psychometric requirements of reliability, validity, modifiability and generalizability.

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