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.
- Criminal punishment
- Retributive justice
- Sentencing reform
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology