Criminal Justice

Race Matters in Sentencing, Study Suggests


Researchers say they their new study suggests a reason why African Americans are overrepresented in prison. Black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites, on average, but the racial gap is even more pronounced among some judges, suggesting that race is influencing the decision, the study found.

The researchers studied judicial variations in sentencing in felony cases from Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago. “Race matters in the courtroom,” says the study posted as SSRN. Differences in sentencing by race across judges “suggests that courtroom outcomes may not be race blind. This may be one source of the substantial overrepresentation of African-Americans in the prison population.”

The researchers plotted incarceration rates and sentence lengths imposed for blacks and whites by each judge in the study. The average rate of incarceration is 51 percent for African Americans and 38 percent for whites—a racial gap of 13 percentage points. The study found that the gap in incarceration rates between black and white defendants increased by 18 percentage points between the 10th percentile and 90th percentile judges.

The study explains the difference in an example. A black defendant would have a 45 percent chance of incarceration before the 10th percentile judge and a 68 percent chance before the 90th percentile judge. A white defendant, on the other hand, would have a 35 percent chance of incarceration before the 10th percentile judge and a 40 percent chance before the 90th percentile judge. The racial gap in sentencing probability between the black and white defendants is 10 percentage points by the 10th percentile judge and 28 percentage points by the 90th percentile judge.

The gap in sentence length for the 10th and 90th percentile judges also differed—by 10 months—but the amount was not statistically significant. “Thus it appears there are substantial differences in behavior across the judges when it comes to the decision of whether or not to incarcerate defendants of different races, but not to the same extent when it comes to the decision of setting sentence length,” the study says. The study notes that Illinois sentencing guidelines could be reducing the gap in sentence lengths.

The study looked at a subset of felony cases tried in Cook County, excluding murders, that were initiated between 1995 and 2001. University of Pennsylvania law professor David Abrams conducted the study along with economics professors Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard, according to a press release.

Abrams says the research points to the need to educate judges about the possible effects of race on their decisions. “No judge is likely to acknowledge, on his or her own, ‘Well, of course, I take race into account,’ ” he said in the press release. “And likely they don’t in any explicit way. But they probably do implicitly, because we take all kinds of things into account implicitly. And I think making judges aware of it could potentially help going forward.”

The National Law Journal has a story on the study and comments by Abrams.

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