by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project; author of Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies and Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States (co-authored with Marc Mauer).
*This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
Between 2007 and 2009, black men received federal sentences that were 14 percent longer than those for white men with similar arrest offenses, criminal histories and other prior characteristics. In their Yale Law Journal article, Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi show that prosecutors – not judges – have been the “dominant procedural sources of disparity.” This is because prosecutors were twice as likely to charge black defendants with offenses that carried mandatory minimum sentences than otherwise-similar whites. Similar patterns emerge at the state level. Mandatory minimum sentences have therefore not eliminated sentencing disparities by standardizing judicial decisions as some had hoped. Instead, mandatory minimums have merely transferred power from judges to prosecutors.
In my recent report with The Sentencing Project, I outline the major sources of racial disparity in criminal justice outcomes and highlight recent initiatives for targeting these inequities. Racially biased use of discretion – not just among prosecutors, but also police officers, judges and potentially even public defenders – is just one source of racial disparity in sentencing.
A second cause is ostensibly race-neutral policies and laws that have a disparate racial impact. For example, drug-free school zone laws mandate sentencing enhancements for people caught selling drugs near school zones. The expansive geographic range of these zones coupled with high urban density has disproportionately affected residents of urban areas, and particularly those in high-poverty areas – who are largely people of color. A study in New Jersey found that 96% of persons subject to these enhancements in that state were African American or Latino. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of drug-free school zone law.