Journal of Quantitative Criminology

, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 191–215 | Cite as

A Multilevel Test of Minority Threat Effects on Sentencing

  • Xia WangEmail author
  • Daniel P. Mears
Original Paper


Prior studies of criminal sanctioning have focused almost exclusively on individual-level predictors of sentencing outcomes. However, in recent years, scholars have begun to include social context in their research. Building off of this work—and heeding calls for testing the racial and ethnic minority threat perspective within a multilevel framework and for separating prison and jail sentences as distinct outcomes—this paper examines different dimensions of minority threat and explores whether they exert differential effects on prison versus jail sentences. The findings provide support for the racial threat perspective, and less support for the ethnic threat perspective. They also underscore the importance of testing for non-linear threat effects and for separating jail and prison sentences as distinct outcomes. We discuss the findings and their implications for theory, research, and policy.


Minority threat effects Sentencing 



Data for this study were kindly provided by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. The authors thank Shawn Bushway, Stephen Demuth, Carter Hay, Brian Johnson, John Kramer, Xufeng Niu, Mike Reisig, Darrell Steffensmeier, Brian Stults, Gary Sweeten, and Jeffrey Ulmer for their helpful comments and suggestions. We also thank the anonymous reviewers and the Editors for their assistance and insights.


  1. Acock AC (2005) Working with missing values. J Marriage Fam 67(4):1012–1028CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Albonetti CA (1986) Criminality, prosecutorial screening, and uncertainty: toward a theory of discretionary decision making in felony case processing. Criminology 24(4):623–644CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Albonetti CA (1991) An integration of theories to explain judicial discretion. Soc Probl 38(2):247–266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Albonetti CA (1997) Sentencing under the federal sentencing guidelines: effects of defendant characteristics, guilty pleas, and departures on sentence outcomes for drug offenses, 1991–1992. Law Soc Rev 31(4):789–822CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Allison PD (2000) Multiple imputation for missing data: a cautionary tale. Sociol Method Res 28(3):301–309CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blalock HM (1967) Toward a theory of minority group relations. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Blumstein A, Cohen J, Martin SE, Tonry ME (eds) (1983) Research on sentencing: the search for reform, vol 1. National Academy Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  8. Bobo L, Hutchings VL (1996) Perceptions of racial group competition: Extending Blumer’s theory of group position to a multiracial social context. Am Sociol Rev 61(1):951–972CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bontrager S, Bales W, Chiricos T (2005) Race, ethnicity, threat, and the labeling of convicted felons. Criminology 43(3):589–622CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Britt CL (2000) Social context and racial disparities in punishment decisions. Justice Q 17(4):707–732CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Brown ML, Kros JF (2003) Data mining and the impact of missing data. Ind Manage Data Syst 103(8):611–621CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2006) State court processing statistics, 1990–2002. Study 2038-v2. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2006-03-17Google Scholar
  13. Bushway SD, Piehl AM (2001) Judging judicial discretion: legal factors and racial discrimination in sentencing. Law Soc Rev 35(4):733–764CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bushway SD, Piehl AM (2007) Social science research and the legal threat to presumptive sentencing guidelines. Criminol Public Policy 6(3):461–482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bushway S, Johnson BD, Slocum LA (2007) Is the magic still there? The use of the Heckman two-step correction for selection bias in criminology. J Quant Criminol 23(2):151–178CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Chiricos T, Crawford C (1995) Race and imprisonment: A contextual assessment of the evidence. In: Hawkins D (ed) Ethnicity, race, and crime. State University of New York Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  17. Chiricos T, Welch K, Gertz M (2004) Racial typification of crime and support for punitive measures. Criminology 42(2):359–389CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Crawford C, Chiricos T, Kleck G (1998) Race, racial threat, and sentencing of habitual offenders. Criminology 36(3):481–511CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Demuth S, Steffensmeier D (2004) Ethnicity effects on sentence outcomes in large urban courts: Comparisons among white, black, and Hispanic defendants. Soc Sci Q 85(4):994–1011CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Dixon JC (2006) The ties that bind and those that don’t: toward reconciling group threat and contact theories of prejudice. Soc Forces 84(4):2179–2204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Eitle D, D’Alessio SJ, Stolzenberg L (2002) Racial threat and social control: a test of the political, economic, and threat of black crime hypotheses. Soc Forces 81(2):557–576CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Engen R, Gainey R (2000) Modeling the effects of legally relevant and extra-legal factors under sentencing guidelines: the rules have changes. Criminology 38(4):1207–1230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Esqueda CW, Espinoza RKE, Culhane SE (2008) The effects of ethnicity, SES, and crime status on juror decision making: a cross-cultural examination of European American and Mexican–American mock jurors. Hisp J Behav Sci 30(2):181–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Everett RS, Wojtkiewicz RA (2002) Difference, disparity, and race/ethnic bias in federal sentencing. J Quant Criminol 18(2):189–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fearn N (2005) A multilevel analysis of community effects on criminal sentencing. Justice Q 22(4):452–487CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Frase RS (2005) State sentencing guidelines: diversity, consensus, and unresolved policy issues. Columbia Law Rev 105:1190–1232Google Scholar
  27. Gerber J, Engelhardt-Greer S (1996) Just and painful: attitudes toward sentencing criminals. In: Flanagan TJ, Longmire DR (eds) American view crime and justice: a national public opinion survey. Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp 62–74Google Scholar
  28. Gilliam FD Jr, Valentino NA, Beckmann MN (2002) Where you live and what you watch: the impact of racial proximity and local television news on attitudes about race and crime. Polit Res Q 55(4):755–780CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Greenberg DF, Kessler RC, Loftin C (1985) Social inequality and crime control. J Crim Law Criminol 76(3):684–704CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Griffin T, Wooldredge J (2006) Sex-based disparities in felony dispositions before versus after sentencing reform in Ohio. Criminology 44(4):893–924CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hair JF, Anderson RE, Tatham RL, Black WC (1998) Multivariate data analysis, 5th edn. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle RiverGoogle Scholar
  32. Harrington MP, Spohn C (2007) Defining sentence type: further evidence against use of the total incarceration variable. J Res Crime and Delinq 44(1):36–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hartley RD, Maddan S, Spohn C (2007) Prosecutorial discretion: an examination of substantial assistance departures in federal crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine cases. Justice Q 24(3):382–407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Helms R, Jacobs D (2002) The political context of sentencing: an analysis of community and individual determinants. Soc Forces 81(2):577–604CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Holleran D, Spohn C (2004) On the use of the total incarceration variable in sentencing research. Criminology 42(1):211–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Horton NJ, Kleinman KP (2007) Much ado about nothing: a comparison of missing data methods and software to fit incomplete data regression models. Am Stat 61(1):79–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Johnson BD (2003) Racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing departures across modes of conviction. Criminology 41(2):449–490CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Johnson BD (2005) Contextual disparities in guideline departures: courtroom social contexts, guidelines compliance, and extralegal disparities in criminal sentencing. Criminology 43(3):761–796CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Johnson BD (2006) The multilevel context of criminal sentencing: integrating judge- and county-level influences. Criminology 44(2):259–298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Johnson D (2008) Racial prejudice, perceived injustice, and the black-white gap in punitive attitudes. J Crim Justice 36(2):198–206CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Johnson BD, Ulmer JT, Kramer JH (2008) The social context of guidelines circumvention: the case of federal district courts. Criminology 46(3):737–784CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kane RJ (2003) Social control in the metropolis: a community-level examination of the minority-group threat hypothesis. Justice Q 20(2):265–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kane RJ (2006) On the limits of social control: structural deterrence and the policing of “suppressible” crimes. Justice Q 23(2):186–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kautt P (2002) Location, location, location: interdistrict and intercircuit variation in sentencing outcomes for federal drug-trafficking offenses. Justice Q 19(4):633–671CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kent SL, Jacobs D (2005) Minority threat and police strength from 1980 to 2000: a fixed-effects analysis of non-linear and interactive effects in large U.S. cities. Criminology 43(3):731–760CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. King RD (2007) The context of minority group threat: race, institutions, and complying with hate crime law. Law Soc Rev 41(1):189–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. King RD, Wheelock D (2007) Group threat and social control: race, perceptions of minorities and the desire to punish. Soc Forces 85(3):1255–1280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Kramer J, Scirica A (1986) Complex policy choices: the Pennsylvania commission on sentencing. Fed Probat 50:15–23Google Scholar
  49. Liska AE (1992) Social threat and social control. State University of New York Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  50. Liska AE, Chamlin MB (1984) Social structure and crime control among macrosocial units. Am J Sociol 90(2):383–395CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Liska AE, Yu J (1992) Specifying and testing the threat hypothesis: police use of deadly force. In: Liska AE (ed) Social threat and social control. State University of New York Press, Albany, pp 53–68Google Scholar
  52. Long JS (1997) Regression models for categorical and limited dependent variables. Sage, Thousands OaksGoogle Scholar
  53. Longmire DR (1996) American attitudes about the ultimate weapon: capital punishment. In: Flanagan TJ, Longmire DR (eds) American view crime and justice: a national public opinion survey. Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp 93–108Google Scholar
  54. Mears DP (1998) The sociology of sentencing: reconceptualizing decision making processes and outcomes. Law Soc Rev 32(3):667–724CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Mitchell O (2005) A meta-analysis of race and sentencing research: explaining the inconsistencies. J Quant Criminol 21(4):439–466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mustard DB (2001) Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in sentencing: evidence from the U.S. federal courts. J Law Econ 44(1):285–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Myers MA, Talarico SM (1987) The social contexts of criminal sentencing. Springer-Verlag, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  58. Novak, KJ, Chamlin MB (2008) Racial threat, suspicion, and police behavior: the impact of race and place in traffic enforcement. Crime Delinq (forthcoming; available via online first at
  59. Parker KF, Stults BJ, Rice SK (2005) Racial threat, concentrated disadvantage and social control: considering the macro-level sources of variations in arrests. Criminology 43(4):1111–1134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Piehl AM, Bushway SD (2007) Measuring and explaining charge bargaining. J Quant Criminol 23(2):105–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Quillian L (2006) New approaches to understanding racial prejudice and discrimination. Annu Rev Sociol 32:299–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Quillian L, Pager D (2001) Black neighbors, higher crime? The role of racial stereotypes in evaluations of neighborhood crime. Am J Sociol 107(3):717–767CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Raudenbush S, Bryk A (2002) Hierarchical linear models: applications and data analysis methods. Sage, Thousand OaksGoogle Scholar
  64. Raudenbush S, Bryk A, Cheong YF, Congdon R, Toit MD (2004) HLM 6: Hierarchical linear and non-linear modeling. Scientific Software International, LincolnwoodGoogle Scholar
  65. Rice SK, Reitzel JD, Piquero AR (2005) Shades of brown: perceptions of racial profiling and the intra-ethnic differential. J Ethn Crim Justice 3(1/2):47–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Rottman DB, Flango CR, Cantrell MT, Hansen R, LaFountain N (2000) State Court Organization, 1998. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  67. Ruddell R, Urbina M (2004) Minority threat and punishment: a cross-national analysis. Justice Q 21(4):903–931CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Sampson RJ, Laub J (1993) Structural variations in juvenile court processing: inequality, the underclass, and social control. Law Soc Rev 27(2):285–312CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Spitzer S (1975) Toward a Marxian theory of deviance. Soc Probl 22(5):638–651CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Spohn C (2000) Thirty years of sentencing reform: the quest for a racially neutral sentencing process. In: Criminal Justice 2000, vol 3: policies, processes and decisions of the criminal justice system. Washington, DC: Office of Justice ProgramsGoogle Scholar
  71. Spohn C, Holleran D (2000) The imprisonment penalty paid by young, unemployed black and hispanic male offenders. Criminology 38(1):281–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Steffensmeier D, Demuth S (2000) Ethnicity and sentencing outcomes in U.S. federal courts: who is punished more harshly? Am Sociol Rev 65(5):705–729CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Steffensmeier D, Demuth S (2001) Ethnicity and judges’ sentencing decisions: hispanic-black-white comparison. Criminology 39(1):145–178CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Steffensmeier D, Demuth S (2006) Does gender modify the effects of race-ethnicity on criminal sanctioning? Sentences for male and female white, black, and hispanic defendants. J Quant Criminol 22(3):241–261CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Steffensmeier D, Kramer J, Streifel C (1993) Gender and imprisonment decisions. Criminology 31(3):411–446CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Steffensmeier D, Ulmer J, Kramer J (1998) The interaction of race, gender, and age in criminal sentencing: the punishment cost of being young, black, and male. Criminology 36(4):763–798CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Stolzenberg L, D’Alessio SJ, Eitle D (2004) A multilevel test of racial threat theory. Criminology 42(3):673–698CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Stults BJ, Baumer EP (2007) Racial context and police force size: evaluating the empirical validity of the minority threat perspective. Am J Sociol 113(2):507–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Taylor M (1998) How white attitudes vary with the racial composition of local populations: numbers count. Am Sociol Rev 63(4):512–535CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Tonry M (1988) Structuring sentencing. Crime Justice Rev Res 10:267–337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Tonry M (1996) Sentencing matters. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  82. Turk A (1966) Conflict and criminality. Am Sociol Rev 31(3):338–352CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Ulmer JT (1997) Social worlds of sentencing: court communities under sentencing guidelines. State University of New York Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  84. Ulmer JT, Johnson B (2004) Sentencing in context: a multilevel analysis. Criminology 42(1):137–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Ulmer JT, Kurlychek MC, Kramer JH (2007) Prosecutorial discretion and the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences. J Res Crime Delinq 44(4):427–458CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Weidner RR, Frase RS, Pardoe I (2004) Explaining sentence severity in large urban counties: a multilevel analysis of contextual and case-level factors. Prison J 84(2):184–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Weidner RR, Frase RS, Schultz JS (2005) The impact of contextual factors on the decision to imprison in large urban jurisdictions: a multilevel analysis. Crime Delinq 51(3):400–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Wooldredge J (2007) Neighborhood effects on felon sentencing. J Res Crime Delinq 44(2):238–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Wooldredge J, Thistlethwaite A (2004) Bilevel disparities in court dispositions for intimate assault. Criminology 42(2):417–456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Zatz MS, Rodriguez N (2006) Conceptualizing race and ethnicity in studies of crime and criminal justice. In: Peterson RD, Krivo LJ, Hagan J (eds) The many colors of crime. New York University Press, New York, pp 39–53Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Criminology and Criminal JusticeArizona State UniversityPhoenixUSA
  2. 2.College of Criminology and Criminal JusticeFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

Personalised recommendations