Racial Disparities Found in Federal Sex Crime Sentencing

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Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio found that Black and Hispanic Americans charged in federal sex abuse cases are receiving disproportionately harsher sentences

In a recent study published in the journal Sexual Abuse, the researchers explored what they said was a trend in more severe punishment over the past decade since Congress has enacted several pieces of legislation aimed at increasing the punishment in federal sex offender and child pornography cases.

The researchers University of Texas at San Antonio criminology and criminal justice professors Richard Hartley and Alexander Testa, and alumnus Erika Martinez, noted that convictions in federal courts have increased over the last two decades.

Most studies of federal sentencing have focused on “understanding what influences judicial decisions and whether racial/ethnic disparities in federal sentencing practices exist, regardless of the type of crime charged,” Hartley explained in an interview with the university journal, UTSA Today.

“Little research, however, has examined the determinants of sentencing outcomes for those convicted of federal sex offenses.”

In their latest work, the researchers utilized federal sentencing data from the United States Sentencing Commission over an 8-12 year period, and performed statistical regressions to examine the differences in punishment for federal sex abuse and child pornography offenses, and analyzed racial and ethnic disparities in sentence length for all 50 states. 

Following that, they analyzed whether or not these imposed sentences took a departure from federal sentencing guidelines — like mandatory minimums — which have changed over time. 

Looking at The Numbers

The results of their research “generally demonstrates that male and minority defendants receive harsher punishments than their female and white counterparts convicted of similar offenses,” the report outlines. 

Recent USSC statistics cited by the authors show that just more than 70 percent of those serving time in federal prison are racial or ethnic minorities, so these findings align with known information.

To that end, the researchers were shocked to find that despite federal prison facilities being populated with ethnic minorities, they’re not typically the individuals being convicted. 

“The majority of those convicted of receipt or possession of child pornography are White (86 percent); there are very few Black (4 percent), Hispanic (10 percent), or Native American (<1 percent) individuals charged with this offense.” 

“The demography of individuals convicted of sexual abuse offenses is more mixed; 42 percent are White, 18 percent are Black, 10 percent are Hispanic, and 31 percent are Native American,” with the large percentage of Native Americans in this offense type explained by the fact that it likely reflects the legal jurisdiction of the federal government on Native American lands or reservations, the authors write. 

In terms of sentencing, the researchers discovered a very different narrative. 

Out of the individuals who are convicted of committing sexual abuse offenses, Black and Hispanic Americans receive longer sentences over time compared to White Americans. 

To put this into statistical context, the authors write that Black individuals convicted of sexual abuse during FY 2006-2017 had a 1,330.47 percent increase in their sentences, whereas White individuals saw a decrease of 8.66 percent in their sentences. 

The sentence length change of those convicted of child pornography are less stark, the authors detail, but the sentencing trend put in context of race and ethnicy tells the same story. 

The authors say the findings of this study add to growing research that in sex abuse cases and child pornography cases, convicted individuals who are Black and Hispanic are receiving harsher punishments over time — even after accounting for factors such as age, sex, criminal history, and offense seriousness, USA Today reported.


Through the course of their research, the authors acknowledge that much of the disparities centers around longer sentence lengths for people of color. 

In the report, the authors note that Congress recently passed the First Step Act in 2018 with a goal of aiding in sentencing reform — specifically reducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses — as well as improving early release programs for inmates who participate in rehabilitative programs and earn “good time credit.” 

In line with these reforms, the authors urge that “Congress should further pass legislation specifically targeting individuals convicted of federal sex offenses to offer and incentivize, through increased good time credit, participation in treatment-based prison programming, which would assist in successful reentry and reduced recidivism.”

Congress should also work to monitor how current legislative increases in punishments for certain offenses affect law enforcement arrests, the authors continue, noting that plea bargaining practices should be scrutinized as well in order to ensure fairness in applying federal law.

Testa concludes by telling UTSA Today, “our analyses demonstrate that the shifting nature of the racial and ethnic composition of those convicted of federal sex offenses has corresponded with changes in punishment practices that has increased racial and ethnic disparity in federal sentencing among those convicted of federal sex offenses.”

Richard Hartley, Ph.D., is the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department Chair and Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

Alexander Testa, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor for the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

Erika Martinez has her Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she graduated in 2020. 

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for TCR.

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