Challenges in the search of sentencing disparities

By Tiina Malin

Tiina Malin. Photo: Joel Grandell.

The theme of this year’s NSfK research seminar was “The future of punishment”. I attended many interesting presentations on, for example, prison studies and the impacts of punishments. My own presentation was about my dissertation project that focuses on sentencing disparities in Finland; thus, I somehow fitted in with the theme. During my presentation, it felt like I concentrated on the challenges in my research field, so I thought I would address these even further in this blog post.

One issue with seeking actual disparities is in how to take into account all relevant factors. In other words, if I want to see, for example, if there are differences between courts in their tendency to categorise child sexual abuse (CSA) as aggravated (as opposed to standard form), I should naturally take into account all the aggravating factors. Simply comparing the crime titles between courts would not tell the whole truth if we don’t know what kind of acts are behind the sentences. CSA may be an extreme example, as it has more aggravating factors than there are, e.g. among traffic offences. Nevertheless, in all crime types, severity should be observed.

Unfortunately, this is something that many studies have struggled to do. The reasons for this have often been practical: the data that has been used has not contained these variables. I have tried to tackle this issue with manually coded data (the use of which is time-consuming) and with data that has been automatically collected with word search (which does not work reliably with more complex variables). Producing the data somehow in co-operation with courts might work as a solution.

Another big challenge is the fact that going through merely between-court disparities is not enough. There is a large field of study focusing also on the judge level, and this is something I’m also going to look into in the Finnish context in my dissertation. Unfortunately, even this isn’t enough, as there are many other actors influencing the sentence. These are other courtroom actors such as the prosecutor and attorney, and even pretrial investigators such as the police.

In my seminar presentation, I focused on the role of the prosecutor, which turned out quite challenging to take into account. One of the reasons was the fact that the prosecutor and court might have different views on the nature of the criminal act. The court might dismiss some parts of the act if it does not find enough evidence for them. This might create justified differences in the actions of the parties that studies aren’t able to consider. In prior studies on the role of the prosecutor, I didn’t find any discussion on this matter, and I do think it is a big challenge to be faced in the future.

Personally, I feel like the more I go forward with my dissertation project, the more challenges I discover out there. This feels dull, but at the same time it’s good to know that there is still research to be done on these actively studied themes. More on these challenges – and hopefully also some solutions to them – can be found in my future research articles.

Tiina Malin works as a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, University of Helsinki, Finland. Her dissertation focuses on regional sentencing disparities, which are examined with both quantitative and qualitative methods.