Back to Basics: A Critical Examination of the Focal Concerns Framework from the Perspective of Judges

Jeffery T. Ulmer, Eric Silver, Lily S. Hanrath

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The focal concerns framework is widely used in research on sentencing, although the empirical validity of the framework itself is seldom directly evaluated. To fill this gap, we use survey data from 134 trial court judges to examine two basic questions about the focal concerns framework: (1) How and to what extent do judges consider the original focal concerns of blameworthiness, community protection, and practical constraints in their sentencing decisions? (2) To what extent is perceived rehabilitation potential, or “redeemability,” considered by judges and should it become a fourth focal concern? Results based on open-ended survey questions reveal that judges continue to rely on the original focal concerns, but they operationalize these concerns in a variety of ways. Results further show that most judges are concerned about the rehabilitation potential, or “redeemability,” of defendants. Based on these results, we conclude that the focal concerns framework continues to be of value but that future research using the framework should consider adding redeemability/rehabilitation potential as a fourth focal concern. We caution, however, that some of the factors judges consider in connection with rehabilitation potential/redeemability could increase sentencing disparities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)813-836
Number of pages24
JournalJustice Quarterly
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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