The United States Sentencing Commission reported last week that Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated white male offenders.
The finding is based on data for fiscal years 2012-2016, and it is consistent with the prior four periods studied by the Commission.
For the study, cases were dividied into four groups: (1) those where the sentence was within the sentencing guideline range; (2) those where the sentence was above the guideline range; (3) those where the sentence was imposed below the guideline range at the request of the prosecution; and (4) those where the judge imposed a sentence below the guideline range without a request from the prosecution.
Prior reports suggested that judges’ decisions to reduce sentences on their own, without a request from the prosecutor, may be a source of sentencing disparity. The report found that Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than white male offenders to receive a reduced sentence from a judge without a request from the prosecutor. And even when Black male offenders did get a below-guidelines sentence from a judge, their sentences were 16.8 percent longer than white male offenders who received a below-guidelines sentence from a judge.
The Commission also reported that violence in an offender’s criminal history did not account for these sentencing disparities. When researchers took into account violence in an offender’s past, Black male offenders still received sentences on average 20.4 percent longer than similarly situated white male offenders.
These racial disparities in our criminal justice system are a legacy of our history of racial injustice. Slavery in America was justified by a narrative of racial hierarchy — the belief that Black people were inferior, and therefore needed and actually benefitted from slavery— that survived the formal abolition of slavery. Slavery evolved into convict leasing, whereby African Americans were arrested for “crimes” like loitering and forced to work in white-owned businesses throughout the South.
The decades of racial terror lynchings that followed slavery grafted onto the narrative of racial hierarchy a presumption of guilt and dangerousness, as whites defended vigilante violence against Black people as necessary to protect their property, families, and Southern way of life from Black “criminals.”
The presumption of guilt and dangerousness assigned to African Americans has made minority communities particularly vulnerable to the unfair administration of criminal justice. EJI believes that understanding how today’s criminal justice crisis is rooted in our country’s history of racial injustice requires truthfully facing that history and its legacy.