The five-year project, titled 'A Statewide Mixed-methods Evaluation of Pennsylvania’s 8th Edition Sentencing Guidelines and their Impacts on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Sentencing Outcomes,' is funded under the National Institute of Justice's W.E.B. DuBois Fellowship Program of research on reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. Strange will work with three co-investigators including Jordan Hyatt, PhD, JD, associate professor of criminology and justice studies and director of Drexel’s Center for Public Policy, and hopes to involve students in the research process as well.
Less than half of U.S. states have established sentencing guidelines, which provide judges with standardized recommendations for punishment. The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing first implemented guidelines in the 1980s, and they have gone through various iterations throughout the decades.
"Since roughly 2014, Pennsylvania has been in the process of doing a major revision—probably the biggest wholesale comprehensive revision of the guidelines since they were first implemented," Strange explained. The revised sentencing guidelines were approved this year and will go into effect January 1, 2024.
Strange is tasked with conducting a process and outcome evaluation of the guidelines using qualitative and quantitative research and descriptive analysis. The results of her project will demonstrate Pennsylvania’s policy change process to other states, with the potential to influence how sentencing guidelines are formed nationwide and reduce the number of people of color disproportionately impacted by systems of justice.
"For those of us who study punishment, we know that there are well-known disparities in sentencing," said Strange. "We also know that those are often rooted in criminal history, and how that is weighted within sentencing decisions. Pennsylvania has really worked hard on that specific issue, considering how to weight criminal history, so that people are not unfairly disadvantaged due to differential exposure to policing or cumulative disadvantage across the justice process."
To analyze how successful Pennsylvania has been in reducing inequalities in sentencing based on race and ethnicity, Strange and her research team will review documentation from throughout the 10-year revision process, conduct interviews with stakeholders who were involved in the process and compare sentencing data under the new and previous guidelines.
"We will try to make sense of how criminal history has been measured in Pennsylvania, and whether the differences under the new sentencing guidelines have helped, hurt or remained the same in terms of the size of disparities," Strange explained. "We're also going to zoom out and look at sentencing in general, so we'll be able to also answer questions about punitiveness in the state, different types of sentencing patterns, etc."
The project will inform both academic audiences (those who study the justice system, like Strange and her colleagues) and practitioner audiences (those who are responsible for implementing justice). "If there is a disconnect between those two, then the research is not going to have the impact it could," she explained. "Researchers ask questions and try to get answers, but at the end of the day the policymakers and legislators control what these policies are."
The practitioner-focused deliverables include a report summarizing Pennsylvania’s revision process, as well as an implementation guide that demonstrates what this policy change process looks like so other states, and even other countries, can replicate it.
"Although less than half of U.S. states have sentencing guidelines, we are seeing them more internationally," Strange explained. "A lot of countries are looking at states like Pennsylvania that have been doing this for several decades. They're looking to us for guidance on not only what their guidelines should look like, but how they should measure their impacts."
A third, more academically focused piece of the project will take a deep dive into the issue of inequalities in sentencing based on race and ethnicity, and Pennsylvania’s success in reducing these disparities. Strange hopes the research team’s results will be disseminated widely and plans to present at domestic and international conferences.
"In five years, we are going to be able to answer the question of whether these changes to the guidelines worked or did not to reduce racial disparities," Strange said. "More importantly, we will understand the nuance behind it, because the answers to these questions are not simple at all and they deserve a detailed and nuanced examination."