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New Study Confirms Race Plays Role in Sentencing Nonviolent Offenders

The newest study on racial bias in the courtroom comes via South Carolina.

The American justice system has come under close scrutiny over the past few years. A multitude of heartbreaking cases from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice have sparked movements calling for a comprehensive overhaul of both police and court systems. And now, more scientific studies than ever are backing up these calls with hard evidence of racial bias.

The newest study on racial bias in the courtroom comes via South Carolina. First published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology it examines how a judge’s inherent racial bias might impact sentencing between those found guilty of similar crimes.

There have been prior studies that have looked into this issue before. One notable study from 2005 found that younger black and Latino men were given harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as white offenders.

Yet in this new study, the cases they looked at were not from a broad spectrum of offenders, including violent crimes, where most people would conclude a harsh prison sentence is either mandatory or preferred. Rather, it focused on “liberation bias,” where lesser, nonviolent crimes allow judges to use their own discretion when it came to sentencing.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield analyzed over 17,000 court cases from South Carolina and found that, “Black people with lower levels of criminal history were more likely than white people to be jailed, with the likelihood of incarceration increasing by as much as 43 per cent for those with no past criminal history to ten per cent for those with moderate criminal history.”

However, interestingly when severity of the crime was intensified, white offenders actually received longer average sentences than their black counterparts. Meaning petty crimes have a much higher impact on incarceration overall within the nation, and within the black community.

And these penalties on low-level, nonviolent offenders have the most substantial impact on the US prison system. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than half of those in prison are there for nonviolent offenses, with a whopping 46.6 percent being drug offenses. Compare that to those convicted of homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping, and sexual crimes (in other words, the people we actually want in prison) and combined those criminals only make up 10.8 percent of the prison population.

When looking at a judge’s “liberation bias” on smaller charges, like drugs and theft, it’s easy to see how those within the black community are impacted. This was something Dr. Todd Hartman, who worked on the study for the University of Sheffield, wanted to explore:

“Whether intentional or not, the fact that race appears to influence incarceration and criminal sentencing decisions is troubling. It is particularly concerning that this pattern of disparity appears to be affecting African American offenders with limited criminal histories or for less severe crimes.”

Dr. Hartman went on to say that he hopes the hard data provided in the study can influence the way those involved in the criminal justice system review their inherent bias. And while many of us might view the results of this study as common sense, it’s important to keep in mind that for those who make policy or try to effect change, hard peer-reviewed data is absolutely necessary. And for the justice system, it is another scathing indictment that justice in this country is far from blind.