The effect of prior record in sentencing research: An examination of the assumption that any measure is adequate

Cassia Spohn, Susan Welch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

14 Scopus citations


The defendant's prior criminal record has been shown to be an important factor in explaining sentencing decisions and in accounting for sentencing disparity. Yet little attention has been paid to the appropriate measurement of this variable. Researchers have not agreed on a common measure, but have used misdemeanor or felony arrests, misdemeanor or felony convictions, prison terms, or some combination of these. This paper examined the impact of various measure of prior record on sentences for male and female defendants convicted of violent and nonviolent crimes. We found that prior incarceration had a strong and consistent impact on sentence severity, but that prior arrest and prior conviction had much weaker effects. We also found that the effect of prior record on judge's decisions to sentence and incarcerate varied by gender and that the choice of a measure influenced conclusions concerning the existence and extent of gender discrimination in sentencing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)288-302
Number of pages15
JournalJustice Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1987


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law

Cite this