The Color of Justice

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An individual’s race and ethnic background determine how he is treated at the “front end” of the criminal justice system, according to a study published this week.

The study, which, focused on poor African-American, Latino and white defendants (all male) in San Francisco, found what it called “systematic differences” in outcomes during the preliminary steps of an individual’s involvement in the justice system, from arrest and booking to the pretrial phase.

“Defendants of color are more likely to be held in custody during their cases, which tend to take longer than the cases of White defendants,” said the study, published by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.

“Their felony charges are less likely to be reduced, and misdemeanor charges (are) more likely to be increased during the plea bargaining process, meaning that they are convicted of more serious crimes than similarly situated White defendants.”

The study’s conclusions added a troubling dimension to existing research on racial disparities in the U.S. justice system which has largely concentrated on “final case outcomes,” such as conviction, incarceration and sentence length. In California, for example, African-American men are incarcerated at 10 times the incarceration rate of white men, five times the incarceration rate of Latino men, and 100 times the incarceration rate of Asian men, according to figures cited by the study.

But the study authors’ examination of more than 10,000 records of cases between 2011 and 2014 provided by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office challenged the notion that the difference is explained simply by the fact that African-Americans or Hispanics commit more crimes than other groups.

Their findings suggest that whites are in fact treated more leniently when they are apprehended during the early stages of their involvement in the justice system, thus making them less likely to end up with prison terms in the first place.

“We do not find evidence that district attorneys file more or fewer charges against Black or Latino defendants,” said the authors. “However, it does appear that charges added by the DA against Black defendants are more likely to be felonies, less likely to be misdemeanors, and are therefore more serious overall.

“We also observe that Latino defendants have more misdemeanors, and also more serious charges, added by prosecutors after booking.”

Among the study’s other findings:

  • Black defendants are held in pretrial custody 62% longer than whites;
  • The time to resolution of cases involving black defendants is 14% longer than the time to resolutions of cases involving white defendants;
  • Defendants of color are convicted of more serious crimes than white defendants, and receive sentences that are, on average, 28% longer than those received by white defendants.

The study said the differences could be traced to initial police decisions about whom to arrest, fueled in part by socioeconomic and racial gaps among city neighborhoods.

“After examining multiple potential causes of these differences, we find that the majority of the variance can be explained by two factors: the initial booking decisions made by officers of the San Francisco Police Department and racial differences in previous contact with the criminal justice system in San Francisco County,” the study said.

The study, entitled “Examining Racial Disparities in Criminal Case Outcomes among Indigent Defendants in San Francisco,” was conducted by Emily Owens, of the University of California, Irvine School of Social Ecology; Erin M. Kerrison, of the University of California, Berkeley School of Social Welfare; and Bernardo Santos Da Silveira, of the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School.

A full copy is available here.

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