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Conviction and Sentencing

More than one-third of prison inmates are African American, and about one-fifth are Latino. These proportions exceed their representation in the U.S. population. Although this disparity may reflect heavier involvement in criminal behavior to some degree (Baumer, 2013; Spohn, 2015), a large amount of research does find that people of color are more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison for similar offenses and to receive longer prison terms once sentenced (Bales and Piquero, 2012; Franklin,

2015; Walker et al., 2018). This difference appears more often for African American than for Latino defendants, while some studies do not find racial disparities in sentencing. To the extent that racial differences in sentencing exist in the research, they are found more often for the decision by judges to incarcerate a convicted defendant (the “in/out” decision) than for the length of the prison term that judges determine.

Although the overall evidence on race/ethnicity and sentencing is somewhat inconsistent, it is clearer for death penalty cases and for drug cases. African Americans convicted of homicide are somewhat more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to death by juries, and this difference becomes stronger when the race of the victim is considered (Bohm, 2015). Echoing the findings for prosecutors in homicide cases, death sentences are more likely when a homicide victim is white than when the victim is black, and especially more likely when the victim is white and the defendant is black. Also echoing research on arrests for drug offenses, sentencing for drug offenses is harsher for African American and Latino defendants than for their white counterparts (Alexander, 2012).

A recent intriguing study uncovered an additional kind of racial bias in sentencing (Chokshi, 2017). This study examined 1,900 cases since 1989 where the defendant was convicted of murder, sexual assault, or drug offenses but later exonerated as evidence came to light pointing to the defendant’s innocence. Exonerations stemmed from such reasons as mistaken identification by witnesses or police or prosecutorial misconduct. Of the 1,900 exonerations, 47% involved African American defendants. More to the point, the percentage of exonerated cases for these three crimes involving African American defendants exceeded the percentage of all convictions for these crimes involving African American defendants. As a news report summarized this evidence, “Black defendants convicted of murder or sexual assault are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be later found innocent of the crimes” (Chokshi, 2017).

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