Criminal Courts

VII. Theoretical Perspectives Regarding Criminal Court Outcomes

Outcomes in court regarding decision making of courtroom actors generally are viewed through two theoretical perspectives. The first is that outcomes are dependent primarily on legally relevant factors such as the seriousness of the crime committed by the defendant and the defendant’s prior criminal record. This view of decision making is referred to as formal rationality (Dixon, 1995). This theoretical perspective posits that the formal legal rules are what govern courtroom decisions; therefore, extralegal factors like attorney type, socioeconomic status, gender, and race/ethnicity of the defendant will have no influence on criminal justice outcomes.

The second theoretical perspective posits that outcomes in the criminal justice system are influenced by both legal and extralegal factors. One such theory along these lines was proposed by Albonetti, (1987, 1997), labeled bounded rationality. This theory suggests that courtroom actors often have little time or information when making decisions and may rely therefore on stereotypes regarding the dangerousness and risk a defendant poses based on extralegal factors. According to this perspective, judges and prosecutors make decisions using both legal and extralegal factors.

A similar theory called the focal concerns perspective (Steffensmeier, Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998) proffers that judges use three focal concerns when making decisions. The three focal concerns are blameworthiness, protection of the community, and practical or organization implications. According to this theory, “Judges may rely not only on the defendant’s present offense and prior criminal conduct, but also on attributions linked to the defendant’s gender, race, social class, or other social positions” (Steffensmeier & Demuth, 2006, p. 151). Due to limited time and information, judges use a perceptual shorthand to make decisions about an offender’s dangerousness and risk for recidivism-based on the three focal concerns, which then predicts sentence severity.

The first theoretical perspective, formal rationality, would predict no difference in criminal court outcomes based on extralegal factors. The second perspective, which encompasses bounded rationality and focal concerns, would predict that variables such as type of counsel, gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status would in some circumstances have an effect on decisions surrounding criminal court outcomes.

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