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The Black/White Sentencing Disparity Has Increased, New Study Shows

Criminal Sentencing

Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than White male offenders to be granted a reduced sentence by a judge. (Photo by Owen Franken/Getty Images)

A recent study by the United States Sentencing Commission just confirmed what most in the Black community already knew.

The report, published earlier this month, revealed that Black male offenders who commit the same crimes as white men receive prison sentences that are, on average, 19 percent longer than those handed to their white counterparts. The disparities were clear cut after researchers controlled for several sentencing factors, including age, education, citizenship and prior criminal history.

“Because simplistic analyses don’t control for other relevant factors, they cannot provide an accurate estimate of the extent to which demographic factors are associated with sentence length,” they wrote.

The study showed that Black/white sentencing disparities have increased in recent years, especially after the Supreme Court’s decision in the United States v. Booker case back in 2005. The Booker decision essentially allowed federal judges way more discretion in their sentencing, making it easier to hand down harsher or more lenient sentences than USSC sentencing guidelines required, The Washington Post reported. Before then, judges had to abide by the rules laid out by the commission.

According to the report, the difference in sentence length between Black male and white male offenders is largely driven by “non-government sponsored departures and variances,” or more plainly, sentences imposed by judges at their own discretion. Federal judges have been less likely to voluntarily reduce sentences for Black offenders than for white offender. When their sentences are reduced, however, they’re still nearly 17 percent longer than the sentences of white offenders who also received reduced prison time.

Such a finding suggests that giving judges more discretion in sentencing may leave the door open for racial bias. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, says there’s more to the issue than than. Speaking with The Washington Post, he pointed out that decisions made by federal prosecutors, like whether to pursue charges that carry a mandatory minimum sentence, are also fueling the racial sentencing disparities.

“What we see is that the charging decisions of prosecutors are key,” Maur told the newspaper. “Whether done consciously or not, prosecutors are more likely to charge African-Americans with such charges than whites.”

Maur also noted the possibility of a prosecutor recognizing that a judge is no longer limited by the pre-Booker guidelines, prompting them to charge a case as a mandatory sentence to make sure a certain amount of prison time is handed down to the offender.

A 2014 University of Michigan Law School story revealed that African-American offenders were nearly 75 percent more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender who committed the same crime. Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to ax a memo by former Attorney General Eric Holder instructing prosecutors to refrain from charging low-level defendants with drug crimes that would prompt mandatory minimum sentences – which could mean even more Black people behind bars.

Other key findings of the USSC report include:

  • Violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing.
  •  Female offenders of all races received shorter sentences than White male offenders during the Post-Report period, as they had for the prior four periods.
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