Conviction or Diversion? An Analysis of First-time DUI Offenders in Pennsylvania

Open Access
Knoth, Lauren Kay
Graduate Program:
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
April 03, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Richard Barry Ruback, Thesis Advisor
  • DUI
  • Sentencing
  • Deterrence
  • Reintegrative Shaming
  • Recidivism
Arrests for driving under the influence constitute the most common type of arrest in the United States, but they are often excluded from criminological research. The present study uses hierarchical linear modeling to analyze the sentencing and recidivism of first-time DUI offenders across 60 judicial districts in the State of Pennsylvania. The general theoretical question relates to factors that promote or inhibit deterrence. The study is concerned primarily with the severity of punishments, since arguments have been made both that severe punishments are necessary to reduce the likelihood of additional criminal behaviors (e.g., Beccaria 1764/1963), and that severe punishments are related to the persistence of offending behaviors (e.g., Sherman, 1993). Additionally, this thesis is concerned with the effects of a criminal label (e.g., Braithwaite, 1989; Laub and Sampson, 2003) by comparing the criminal behaviors of individuals who receive a permanent, and stigmatizing, criminal label to those who receive access to a rehabilitative and reintegrative disposition that does not carry a criminal label. Two overarching research questions are considered. First, what offender, offense, and community characteristics influence whether an offender receives diversion or is sentenced for a guilty conviction? Second, what offender, offense, and community characteristics are related to the recidivism of first-time DUI offenders? Specifically, this thesis seeks to understand the processes of selection into diversion programs and the relationship between diversion, versus a criminal label, on future criminal behaviors. These questions are analyzed using data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing (PCS), Pennsylvania State Police (PSP), Pennsylvania Center for Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the United States Census Bureau. Demographic and criminal history characteristics, offense and judicial proceeding characteristics, and community characteristics were included in two-level analyses of offenders nested within their respective Court of Common Pleas. Type of disposition - Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) or Guilty Conviction - and rearrest within 4 years of sentencing for a first-time DUI offense were analyzed as dependent variables. Consistent with general sentencing research, racial minorities, males, and younger offenders were more likely than white, female, and older offenders to receive harsh sentences. Offenders with more serious criminal histories were more likely than offenders with no prior criminal history to receive a guilty conviction. Blood alcohol content (BAC) was not predictive of disposition outcomes, but drug-impaired offenders were more likely than alcohol-impaired offenders to receive a guilty conviction. White, female, and older offenders were less likely than non-white, male, and younger offenders to recidivate. More serious offenders, characterized by the commission of a non-DUI offense that was more serious than their DUI offense, were more likely than less serious or DUI-only offenders to recidivate. Offenders with prior arrests were more likely than offenders with no prior arrests to recidivate. While BAC was not predictive of recidivism, drug-impaired offenders were more likely than alcohol-impaired offenders to recidivate. The relationship between a guilty conviction and recidivism varied by gender and race. While the rate of recidivism of males was similar for those who received ARD and those sentenced for a guilty conviction, females sentenced for a guilty conviction were significantly more likely than females receiving diversion to recidivate. The difference in recidivism between minority offenders sentenced to a guilty conviction and those receiving ARD was also significantly larger than the difference in recidivism for white offenders sentenced to a guilty conviction and those receiving ARD. Finally, county and judicial district characteristics were not predictive of disposition outcomes or rearrest. While this study found variation in the size of the effects of offender and offense characteristics across judicial districts, no county or judicial district characteristics included in the study were able to account for this variation. The results of this thesis suggest two implications for theory. First, arrest itself appears to be a strong deterrent for DUI offenders. The lack of significant differences in recidivism for those receiving a guilty conviction and those receiving diversion suggests that arrest itself may be a severe punishment for this group of offenders and that the severity of subsequent punishment is less important. Second, this thesis provides support for a contingent labeling effect. The findings provide some evidence of a racial or gendered effect of criminal labels and the associated propensity to recidivate. Finally, the current study has an important implication for policy. The findings suggest that diversion programs are currently disproportionately awarded to offenders based on demographic characteristics, but the effects of sentencing on recidivism appear similar regardless of the disposition outcome. Consequently, an expansion of diversion programs for first-time DUI offenders could be considered in order to reduce state costs and to reduce any potential stigma that may result from a permanent criminal label.