Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Peter-Hagene, Liana

Second Advisor

Jacobs, Eric


Children are negatively affected by parental incarceration, and peoples’ discretion in sentencing determines for how long parents are taken away from their children. Although federal laws explicitly state that people should not consider family responsibilities and defendant gender when sentencing, psychological theory and research suggests that people might be sensitive to defendants’ gender and the age of their children. The novel question is whether child age influences sentencing decisions. To test these effects, the age of the defendant’s child and defendant gender were manipulated in two experiments – in a 3-sentence vignette in Study 1 and a presentence investigation report in Study 2. Study 1 tested a 2 (gender: man, woman) X 8 (age of child: 6-months, 1-year, 3-years, 5-years, 8-years, 13-years, 15-years, no child) between- subjects design, and Study 2 tested a 2 (defendant gender: man, woman) X 3 (no child, 1-year- old, 13-year-old) design. Participants in both studies were adults in the United States recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk, n = 461 in Study 1 and n = 362 in Study 2.Results revealed that in Study 1, defendants with a 1-year-old received less prison time than defendants with a 13-year-old; defendants with a 1-year-old received less prison time than defendants with no children; and defendants with a 13-year-old and defendants with no children received similar prison times. Contrary to prior work, women did not receive more lenient sentences than did men. As in Study 1, Study 2 found that men and women received similar prison times. Thus, results from both studies suggest that perhaps people are becoming more egalitarian in their sentencing decisions for men and women, and thus, are not influenced by traditional gender rolesResults from Study 2 revealed that defendants with a 1-year-old child received similar sentences to defendants with a 13-year-old child. Further, defendants without children received similar sentences to defendants with children. Thus, Study 1 and Study 2 found inconsistent results of whether child age influenced sentencing decisions. Therefore, results from both studies suggests that child age might influence sentencing decisions when little information is given. However, when more information is given (e.g., criminal history and details about the crime), child age does not influence sentencing decisions.Another important component of the present research was to determine why people might sentence defendants differently based on child age and defendant gender. Results from Study 2 revealed that people’s general concern for the child did not mediate the relationship between child age and prison time, and perceptions of the defendant’s moral character did not mediate the relationship between parental status and prison time. However, people’s general concern for the child and defendants’ moral character predicted prison time for the defendant, suggesting that people are influenced by their concern for the child and their perceptions of the defendants’ moral character when making sentencing decisions. Considering the defendant’s moral character when sentencing is a biased decision that impacts defendants’ outcomes, creating a disparity between defendants who are perceived to be more moral than others. However, considering the concern of the child when making sentencing decisions is desirable because children of parents who offend are less likely to be separated from their parents, thus protecting them from a whole host of negative outcomes (e.g., future delinquency, internalizing and externalizing problems).




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