Journal of Quantitative Criminology

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 77–100 | Cite as

Conditional Race Disparities in Criminal Sentencing: A Test of the Liberation Hypothesis From a Non-Guidelines State

  • Rhys Hester
  • Todd K. Hartman
Original Paper



To test the liberation hypothesis in a judicial context unconstrained by sentencing guidelines.


We examined cross-sectional sentencing data (n = 17,671) using a hurdle count model, which combines a binary (logistic regression) model to predict zero counts and a zero-truncated negative binomial model to predict positive counts. We also conducted a series of Monte Carlo simulations to demonstrate that the hurdle count model provides unbiased estimates of our sentencing data and outperforms alternative approaches.


For the liberation hypothesis, results of the interaction terms for race x offense severity and race x criminal history varied by decision type. For the in/out decision, criminal history moderated the effects of race: among offenders with less extensive criminal histories blacks were more likely to be incarcerated; among offenders with higher criminal histories this race effect disappeared. The race x offense severity interaction was not significant for the in/out decision. For the sentence length decision, offense severity moderated the effects of race: among offenders convicted of less serious crimes blacks received longer sentences than whites; among offenders convicted of crimes falling in the most serious offense categories the race effect became non-significant for Felony D offenses and transitioned to a relative reduction for blacks for the most serious Felony A, B, and C categories. The race x criminal history interaction was not significant for the length decision.


There is some support for the liberation hypothesis in this test from a non-guidelines jurisdiction. The findings suggest, however, that the decision to incarcerate and the sentence length decision may employ different processes in which the interactions between race and seriousness measures vary.


Sentencing Racial disparities Criminal sentencing Liberation hypothesis Hurdle model 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal JusticeUniversity of Minnesota Law SchoolMinneapolisUSA
  2. 2.Sheffield Methods InstituteThe University of SheffieldSheffieldUK

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