Racial Disparities in Sentencing Rise After Guidelines Loosened

Washington – Black and Hispanic men are more likely to receive longer prison sentences than their white counterparts since the Supreme Court loosened federal sentencing rules, a government study has concluded.

The study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission reignited a long-running debate about whether federal judges need to be held to mandatory guidelines in order to stamp out what might appear to be inherent biases and dramatically disparate sentences.

The report analyzed sentences meted out since the January 2005 U.S. v. Booker decision gave federal judges much more sentencing discretion.

For years, legal experts have argued over the disparity in sentencing between black and white men. The commission found that the difference peaked in 1999 with blacks receiving 14 percent longer sentences. By 2002, however, the commission found no statistical difference.

After the Booker decision, “those differences appear to have been increasing steadily,” with black men receiving sentences that were up to 10 percent longer than those imposed on whites, the commission said.

Using another method of analyzing the data, the study found black men received sentences that were 23 percent longer than white men’s.

Hispanic men, meanwhile, received sentences that were almost 7 percent longer than white men’s. Immigrants also got longer sentences than U.S. citizens did.

The report also found that defendants with some college education consistently have received shorter sentences than those with no college education, but the differences in sentence length remained about the same after the decision.

The commission warned that its report should be read with caution and may not mean that race or class is influencing judges when they hand down longer sentences.

“Judges make decisions when sentencing offenders based on many legal and other legitimate considerations that are not or cannot be measured,” said the commission, an independent body of the federal judiciary. “The analysis presented in this report cannot explain why the observed differences in sentence length exist but only that they do exist.”

For example, a judge who’s sentencing two offenders who were convicted of similar crimes might impose a longer sentence on the offender with a more violent criminal past, information that wasn’t available to the study’s authors.

Nonetheless, opponents of looser sentencing guidelines pounced on the commission’s study, saying it demonstrates that the rules are needed.

“People who commit similar crimes should receive similar sentences,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “Unfortunately, without sentencing guidelines for courts to follow, some individuals have received harsher penalties than others despite committing similar crimes.”

Douglas A. Berman, a professor and sentencing expert at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said it wasn’t that simple because the study “doesn’t provide us with a perfect why or how.”

Berman said he suspected that if racial bias did exist, it cropped up much earlier, when prosecutors, for example, decided whom to offer plea bargains to or when defense attorneys chose to have clients plead guilty or go to trial.

“The first response if you’re not thinking hard about this is the judges are just being biased,” he said. “But I think the whys and the hows have much more to do with prosecutors and defense attorneys than they have to do with the work of judges. A judge can only respond to what’s in front of him or her.”

The report’s release late Thursday came as the House of Representatives and the Senate consider legislation that would reduce disparities in sentencing guidelines between powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

Defense advocates have argued for more than 20 years that the more severe sentences given for crack cocaine offenses, compared with those handed down for crimes that involve powder cocaine, were unfair to African-American defendants. A majority of crack cocaine defendants are African-American, while most powder cocaine defendants are white.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recognized the disparity and recommended lighter penalties in crack cocaine cases, prompting judges to review the sentences of prisoners across the country.