Intercom Online......September 16, 1999

John Kramer, professor of sociology and former director of the
Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, left, chats with
Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology, in the Bellefonte Court House
near the University Park campus. Their research has shown that young
African American males often receive more severe jail sentences than do other offenders.

Photo: Greg Grieco

Perceptions sway sentencing
for young black males

By Paul Blaum
Public Information

Young African American males often receive more severe jail sentences than women and older offenders, white and black, because judges perceive them as more dangerous and less reformable, said two researchers.

"Black men in their 20s and early 30s also are less likely to be viewed as societal victims than other age and gender groups. Therefore, the courts see their offenses are less excusable," said Darrell J. Steffensmeier, professor of sociology in the College of the Liberal Arts. "Judges also may see black American men as doing time more easily and interpret their behavior as less remorseful than that of women and older offenders."

"While the primary determinants of a judge's sentencing decisions are seriousness of the crime and the defendant's prior record, the three factors of race, age and gender clearly play a significant role," said John H. Kramer, professor of sociology and former director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing based at Penn State.

Steffensmeier and Kramer did their research along with Jeffrey Ulmer, assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University.

The researchers examined Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines and gathered qualitative data on sentencing decisions, including interviews with judges.

"Interview data revealed that criminal records of young black males were often defined as qualitatively more serious and indicative of future crime risk compared to other types of defendants, including older black offenders," said

The courts tended to view women and older offenders as potentially involving greater costs and problems for the correctional system in terms of health care and child welfare, according to
Steffensmeier. They were seen as having more ties to the community, more likely to be supporting a family and more likely to have a steady job then or in the future, the researchers said.

Burglary rate linked to drug trafficking

By Paul Blaum
Public Information

The sharp decline in burglary rates since 1980 is linked to a corresponding increase in drug trafficking and various kinds of fraud, according to two researchers.

"According to the age-adjusted Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), burglary rates decreased by a third between 1980 and 1998," said Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology. "The other major crime index, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), puts the rate decrease at about 40 percent."

"What appears to have happened is a substitution effect where the decline in an 'index' or serious crime like burglary is made at the expense of an increase in nonindex crimes such as drug violations, fraud offenses and theft from motor vehicles. Major changes in illegal markets and crime opportunities over the past two decades have made burglary less attractive as a criminal 'profession' and eroded the subculture that produces burglars," said Steffensmeier, who worked with Miles D. Harer, research analyst with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Would-be burglars have been turning to substitute crimes such as thefts from cars or vans (and thefts of cars and vans) and assorted fraud offenses such as credit card fraud and writing bad checks. The key shift in the criminal market seems, however, to be toward drug trafficking. Dealing in drugs, with all its inherent risks, still requires less skill and physical agility than burglary, said Steffensmeier.

"Another important factor in the decline of burglary is 'supply and demand' within the stolen property market," Steffensmeier said. "The abundance of popular consumer items such as televisions, VCRs and cameras have cut demand for stolen goods, causing street prices for many stolen household goods to also drop, perhaps as much as a fifth."

Other factors are major improvements in domestic and commercial security (better lighting, safes and alarm systems), and enforcement programs that target career offenders, he said.

Clot diagnosing may be changed

Researchers in the College of Medicine have shown, through a national survey, that 25 percent of vascular laboratories in the United States may be able to change their policy when it comes to diagnosing deep venous thrombosis, also known as a blood clot. This problem affects about 600,000 people each year, and currently many labs use ultrasound to scan both legs when diagnosing the problem.

"A minority of patients will have clots in both legs, but the treatment is still the same whether you have a clot in one leg or two," said John Blebea, associate professor of vascular surgery.

Blebea said it is important to diagnose blood clots because an untreated clot can become dislodged, travel to the lungs and cause problems with breathing and even death.

Stroke patients provide clues to taste processing

Scientists in the College of Medicine are unraveling how the human brain processes taste information.

"We know from animal research that damage to certain areas of the brain affects taste perception. The challenge has been to extend these findings to patients," said Thomas C. Pritchard, assistant professor of behavioral science.

Pritchard and his colleagues studied six patients who suffered damage to a part of the brain called the insula and a group of 11 healthy adults. All were asked to rate the intensity and describe the quality of taste solutions applied to small portions of the tongue with a cotton swab. They found that both sides of the brain can analyze taste intensity but only the left side can process taste quality. They believe that analysis of taste quality is performed by the left hemisphere because it relies on language areas located on that side of the brain.

According to co-researcher Paul Eslinger, professor of medicine, "Knowing the location of taste cortex will enable physicians to link a patient's stroke damage with his or her symptoms. These findings may enable physicians to confirm their diagnosis and help patients understand the symptoms they are experiencing."

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