Public Support for Sentencing Reform: A Policy-Capturing Experiment

Trace C. Vardsveen, Richard L. Wiener

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


While research has shown magnitude of harm drives punishment decisions for crimes resulting in a prison sentence, many states impose probation rather than incarceration. A two-session experiment investigated how punishment type influences sentence length decisions. In session 1, 347 participants answered online questions about their support for punishment justifications (i.e., retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation). In session 2, the online participants read a randomly assigned scenario about a clerk who stole either a smaller or larger amount of money from his employer (magnitude of harm), which the employer was either likely or unlikely to detect (detection), and the clerk received either a term of prison or probation (type of punishment). Results revealed that magnitude of harm influenced punishment severity and sentence length judgments despite participants’ self-reported support for retribution as a justification showing no influence. Punishment type also affected sentence length decisions. Furthermore, punishment severity judgments mediated the effect of the magnitude of harm on sentence length after controlling for punishment justifications but only in the probation condition, showing demand for harsher punishment was greater for probation. Thus, we concluded that the retribution motive is prevalent if offenders with a more severe crime receive probation rather than a prison sentence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)430-446
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021


  • Criminal punishment
  • Retributive justice
  • Sentencing reform

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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