REPORT: Black Men Sentenced to Substantially Longer Time in Prison Than Whites

By Kenrya Rankin Nov 17, 2017

A new report says that when it comes to federal prison, Black men are sentenced to significantly longer time behind bars than White men.

The study comes from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), a bipartisan, independent agency created by act of Congress that operates within the judicial branch. “Demographic Differences in Sentencing” is an update to reports from 2010 and 2012 that examine the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker (2005), which let federal judges operate outside the USSC’s sentencing guidelines and increased the discretion then can exercise during sentencing.

The report, which was released on November 14, examines the relationship between sentencing outcomes and demographic factors like race and gender. It focuses on cases where the offender was sentenced between October 1, 2011, and September 30, 2016.

There are four key findings from the analysis:

  • On average, Black men received sentences that are 19.1 percent longer than their White counterparts who are convicted of the same crimes. This finding is consistent with the previous studies conducted post-Booker.
  • Judge discretion—called “non-government sponsored departure and variances” from sentencing guidelines in the report—played a significant part in this discrepancy. Black men were 21.2 percent less likely than Whites to have their sentences reduced by a judge. And even when they do see a reduction, their sentences are still 16.8 percent longer than Whites whose sentences are reduced.
  • Having a violent criminal past did not account for the difference. When controlling for previous criminal acts, there is still at 20.4 percent gap in sentencing. Without controlling for past violence, the gap is nearly identical (20.7 percent). This data only looks at sentences handed down during the 2016 fiscal year, as past offense data was not available for previous years.
  • Women of all races were assigned shorter sentences than White men. This is consistent with past reports.

Overall, the data points to judges’ racial bias seeping into the sentencing process. But The Sentencing Project’s Marc Mauer told The Washington Post that the issue starts even before the gavel bangs.

“What we see is that the charging decisions of prosecutors are key. Whether done consciously or not, prosecutors are more likely to charge African Americans with such charges than whites,” Mauer said. “It’s possible that if a prosecutor now recognizes that a judge is not constrained by the [pre-Booker] guidelines, he or she may charge a case as a mandatory sentence to ensure that a certain amount of prison time is imposed, with no possible override by the judge.”

The USSC’s findings are consistent with those that show that Black people are disproportionately represented in the United States’ criminal justice system, with an incarceration rate five times higher than Whites.