Berryessa, C.M. (2021). The potential influence of criminological rationales in considering childhood abuse as mitigating to sentencing. Child Abuse & Neglect 111: 104818.
U.S. courts currently show no coherent approach with regard to how evidence of childhood abuse is considered in sentencing. Existing state and federal caselaw suggests that courts rarely place significant consideration on evidence of childhood abuse during sentencing, but the reasons why offenders who have been subjected to childhood abuse rarely receive mitigated or alternative sentences remain unknown. Yet literature has suggested it might be because no convincing rationales have been yet developed for the court in contending that penalties of offenders who were subjected to childhood abuse should be mitigated. This research examines if and how criminological theoretical perspectives linking childhood abuse and later offending (Social Control Theory, Social Learning Theory, General Strain Theory) are persuasive in arguing childhood abuse (neglect, witnessing trauma, sexual abuse, physical abuse) as mitigating to criminal sentencing. Participants were a national sample of U.S. adults (N = 521). A multi-factorial, vignette-based experiment was conducted, utilizing OLS and mediation analyses.
Evidence on childhood abuse, and particularly sexual abuse, reduced support for incapacitation (B = -0.13, p ≤ 0.05) and increased support for rehabilitation (B = 0.16, p ≤ 0.01). Social Control Theory was particularly persuasive in arguing childhood abuse as mitigating to prison time and in relation to support for rehabilitative sentencing (mediated by beliefs regarding what the theory conveys about future dangerousness and reduced responsibility). Criminological theories appear to be persuasive rationales for arguing childhood abuse as mitigating to sentencing contexts involving incapacitation and rehabilitation. Implications for sentencing guidelines and systems are discussed.