Sentencing/Post Conviction

Study finds decline in racial gap in federal criminal sentences; ethnicity gap varies with citizenship

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Disparities in sentencing based on race are on the decline, according to a new study.

Ryan King, one of the study authors and a sociology professor at the Ohio State University, told Ohio State News that he was surprised by the findings. He had assumed that the gap would remain flat or increase slightly over time. “These results show we have a reason for optimism,” he said.

One reason for the decline at the federal level was the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in sentences for crack vs. powder cocaine, King told Ohio State News. Black people were more likely than white people to be convicted for crack cocaine offenses, which carried higher sentences.

The election of President Barack Obama and his appointment of the first black attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., also might have played a role, King said.

The data was mixed on the sentencing gap between Latinos and white people at the federal level. The gap declined only when noncitizen Latinos were excluded from the data.

King conducted the study with Michael Light, an associate professor of sociology and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They reported their results Aug. 13 in New York City at an annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Some of the results previously were published in a February report in Crime and Justice.

The study found a decline in the racial sentencing gap in federal courts based on these measures:

• Actual sentence lengths. Black people were sentenced on average to 42 more months in prison than white people in 1996 but only eight more months in prison in 2016. That is a decline of more than 80%.

• Likelihood of receiving a federal prison sentence. Black people were nearly 14% more likely than white people to receive a prison sentence in 1996 but only about 7% more likely by the mid-2000s.

• Presumptive sentences under the sentencing guidelines. In 1992, black people on average received 90% of their presumptive sentence, while white people received only 81% of the recommended sentence. That is a difference of 9%. By 2016, the difference had declined to 6%.

The study also found a decline in the racial sentencing gap in an examination of Minnesota data from 1981 to 2017 and data from large urban counties in 25 states between 1990 and 2009.

The study also raises questions about the treatment of noncitizens in sentencing. When noncitizen Latinos were excluded from the federal data, the study found a decline in the sentencing gap between Latinos and non-Latino white people.

When noncitizens were included, the gap in sentencing based on presumptive sentence increased. Latinos were 17% more likely than white people to be incarcerated relative to their presumptive sentence in 1992 and 26% more likely in 2016.

“This finding aligns with recent arguments that non-U.S. citizens, as opposed to racial or ethnic minorities, may be the new face of inequality in federal courts,” King and Light wrote in their February report.

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