Exploring the justice of punishments: Framing, Expressiveness, and the Just Prison Sentence

Guillermina Jasso

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    This paper examines views about the justice of punishments for offenders convicted of five major types of offenses-drug, violent, corporate, property, and victimless crimes. We focus on the just punishment and the just dispersion in the punishment distribution, together with observers' framing and expressiveness; and we test for interrespondent differences. Data are drawn from six U.S. samples interviewed in 1982, a probability sample of the adult population of a major city and samples of five special groups, prison inmates, police officers, law-school and high-school students, and Job Corps trainees. Respondents' judgments were obtained using Rossi's factorial survey method. Fictitious offenders were constructed by randomly combining offender, offense, and victim characteristics; and respondents used a line-matching technique to rate the justice of punishments randomly assigned to fictitious offenders. Analysis is guided by the framework for empirical justice analysis, which provides an integrated set of procedures for estimation and testing. Results indicate that respondents in all samples save one disagree with each other on the just punishment; and the six samples yield four distinct average orderings of just prison sentences. However, large majorities in all six samples find the dispersion in the punishments experimentally put into the vignette world to be too small relative to the just dispersion. More broadly, comparing the results obtained here from the probability sample of a major city with results from a comparable study on the justice of earnings, we find two interesting symmetries-approximately 1% of the general population is contrarian, regarding earnings as a bad and time in prison as a good; and approximately 92% to 94% of the population regard earnings inequality as too high and prison-time inequality as too low. Finally, this study provides additional evidence that the general population in the United States exhibits independence of mind informing their ideas about what constitutes the just earnings and the just punishment.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)397-422
    Number of pages26
    JournalSocial Justice Research
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - 1998


    • Empirical justice analysis
    • Goods and bads
    • Interrespondent differences
    • Just reward function
    • Justice evaluation function
    • Rossi's factorial survey method

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Anthropology
    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Law


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