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Treatment of defendants: the layered racial disparities

According to a recent study on demographic prison data from 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission discovered that black men receive 20 percent more prison time than white men for the same crime—even when the data is analyzed in terms of the offenders’ violent histories.

While this statistic may be upsetting, it may not be terribly surprising. Cases of racial discrimination with regards to the criminal justice system have been prominently reported in the media recently. Perhaps it’s easy to point fingers at racist judges or juries, blaming them for unequal penalties.

However, a new study in the Boston College Law Review examines this issue through a different lens. It looks not just at the final outcome—the sentencing in a trial—but also compares the treatment of black and white defendants at every step of the process leading up to conviction.

For example, at the initial charging stage, the chance of a white defendant having their charge dropped or decreased to a lesser crime is 25 percent higher than for a black defendant. Consequently, the study shows that white defendants who are initially charged with a felony are less likely to be convicted of this category of crime. Additionally, white defendants charged with low-level crimes are more likely to either be convicted of offenses that require no prison time or avoid conviction altogether.

The study finds similar racial disparities in treatment of defendants at the plea-bargaining stage. For misdemeanors and low-level felonies, the charges are reduced for white defendants with no criminal history more often than for their black counterparts.

The above evidence demonstrates the importance of having an astute defense attorney who is alert to these potential forms of racial discrimination and poised to take action against them.

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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