Federal Study: Race Gap in Sentencing Persists

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Race continues to determine the length of sentences received for offenses of all kinds in the federal system, according to a new analysis by the United States Sentencing Commission.

In its third study of the subject since 2010, the Commission found that African-American male offenders were sentenced to prison terms that were on average 19.1 percent longer than white male offenders between 2012-2016.

That gap was not statistically different from prior periods of study, the Commission added.

During the same period, the sentences of Hispanic male offenders were on average 5.3 percent longer than the sentences received by whites.

The study noted that while an initial analysis of the figures suggested that the difference in sentencing length between African Americans and whites had narrowed from 34 months in 2006 to nine months in 2016, the reduced gap was largely due to reductions in penalties for crack cocaine offenses—in which blacks make up the largest component of offenders.

“When other relevant factors are controlled for,” the study said, “the gap in sentence lengths between black male and white male offenders did not shrink but, in fact, remained relatively stable across these periods.”

The study found that African-American offenders were less likely to be offered plea deals than whites—but even those who accepted such deals still received sentences on average 16 percent longer than their white counterparts.

The Commission analyzed court records in 2016 to investigate whether violence in an offender’s previous history might account for the demographic differences in sentencing—the first time it had done so in its demographic studies—and found that it had no effect.

The racial gaps noted in the study, however, did not apply to gender.

During the same period, the Commission said, female offenders on average received shorter sentences than males, regardless of race.

The Commission cautioned that its analysis “cannot control for all the factors that judges may consider…and should not be taken to suggest discrimination on the part of judges.”

“Multivariate analysis,” it added, “cannot explain why the differences in outcomes exist, but only that they do exist.”

The updated report, “Demographic Differences in Sentencing,” was released Tuesday. It was prepared by Glenn R. Schmitt, Louis Reedt, and Kevin Blackwell, respectively, director, deputy director and senior research associate in the Office of Research and Data of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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