A tale of two counties: Unemployment and sentence severity

Tracy Nobiling, Cassia Spohn, Miriam I. Delone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


This study explores the relationship between the offender’s employment status and sentence severity. We use data on felony offenders sentenced in 1993 in Chicago and in Kansas City to test a number of hypotheses concerning the effect of unemployment on the likelihood of incarceration and the length of the prison sentence. Our analyses reveal a complex relationship between unemployment and sentence severity: Unemployment had a direct effect on the decision to incarcerate or not only in Kansas City, and directly affected sentence length only in Chicago. In addition, unemployment interacted with other offender characteristics. The offender’s employment status had no effect on either measure of sentence severity in either jurisdiction if the offender was white. In Chicago, unemployment increased the odds of incarceration for young males and for young Hispanic males, and increased the length of the sentence for males, young males, and black males. In Kansas City, unemployment had no effect on sentence length for any subgroups of the population but influenced the decision to incarcerate if the offender was a black male. We suggest that our results support the proposition that certain types of unemployed offenders are perceived as “social dynamite” (Spitzer 1975) in need of formal social control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)459-485
Number of pages27
JournalJustice Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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