Judicial sentencing and judge's moral development
Horan, Hope Darlene
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The study investigated how sentencing decisions of high or low moral reasoning subjects are affected by sentencing guidelines and by the criminal's acts, intentions, and consequences. Subjects functioning at high or low levels of moral reasoning assigned sentences to convicted defendants whose intentions were either high or low in seriousness, and whose criminal acts resulted in either severe or mild consequences. Sentencing guidelines either focused on criminal intention, seriousness of consequence, or neither (control). In addition, there were four replications of the stimulus design, so that a particular defendant description (determined by the pairing of intentions and consequences) appeared with a different criminal act (arson, auto theft, breaking and entering, and embezzlement) in each replication. The two dependent variables were the sentence assigned the criminal, and the ratings of severity of the criminal case. Moral reasoning level was assessed by a modified version of the DIT (Rest, 1973). Predictions were made concerning the use of sentencing guidelines according to information integration theory. It was predicted for the control group that an interaction between moral level and informational components (intentions and consequences) would be obtained. The interaction would reflect high moral level subjects’ tendencies to weight information pertaining to a criminal's intentions more heavily, and low moral level subjects' tendencies to weight information regarding a crime's consequences more heavily. Sentencing guidelines should also act as an equalizer, i.e., reducing subjects' tendencies to differentially weight certain information in their sentencing decisions. With guidelines stressing consequences, the greater effect of consequences on low compared to high moral subjects predicted for the control group should be reduced, On the other hand, with guidelines stressing intentions, the greater effect on high compared to low moral subjects predicted for the control group should be reduced. Guidelines emphasizing a particular informational component need not affect subject group differences on the unmentioned component. Furthermore, guidelines that emphasize information which each moral group would normally stress should not affect each group's tendency to weight information in the guideline condition compared to the control group. Thus, for this guideline condition, similar to the control group, an interaction between moral level and informational components was predicted. Analyses of the data revealed no effect for sentencing guidelines. The informational components of the case did however affect sentencing decisions, to wit, the predicted interaction for intentions and moral level was obtained. High moral level subjects gave more weight to intentions to commit a criminal act. But an interaction between subjects' moral level and consequences was not found. In general, consequences was the most influential factor in sentencing decisions for both moral groups. This was evidenced by correlational findings and by a significant main effect of consequences for punishment ratings. Analyses of severity ratings reflected the same pattern of effects found for sentencing. This suggested that sentencing is largely a retributive act for the actual harm done by the offender, although criminal intentions can be a factor for judges functioning at higher moral levels.