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African American Forum

C. Sentencing - Racial Disparity in the United States Criminal Justice System

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Although African Americans and Latinos comprise 29% of the U.S. population, they make up 57% of the U.S. prison population. This results in imprisonment rates for African-American and Hispanic adults that are 5.9 and 3.1 times the rate for white adults, respectively—and at far higher levels in some states. Notably, these disparities exist for both the least and most serious offenses:

Of the 277,000 people imprisoned nationwide for a drug offense, over half (56%) are African American or Latino.

Nearly half (48%) of the 206,000 people serving life and “virtual life” prison sentences are African American and another 15% are Latino.

Among youth, African Americans are 4.1 times as likely to be committed to secure placements as whites, American Indians are 3.1 times as likely, and Hispanics are 1.5 times as likely. Although levels of youth confinement have significantly declined in recent years, the racial gap between black and American Indian versus white youth has increased.

The racial disparities in the adult and juvenile justice systems stem in part from the policing and pretrial factors described earlier, and are compounded by discretionary decisions and sentencing policies that disadvantage people of color because of their race or higher rates of socioeconomic disadvantage. These include:

Biased use of discretion: Prosecutors are more likely to charge people of color with crimes that carry heavier sentences than whites. Federal prosecutors, for example, are twice as likely to charge African Americans with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence than similarly situated whites. State prosecutors are also more likely to charge black rather than similar white defendants under habitual offender laws.

Policies that disadvantage people of color: Drug-free school zone laws mandate sentencing enhancements for people caught selling drugs in designated school zones. The expansive geographic range of these zones coupled with high urban density has disproportionately affected residents of urban areas, and particularly those in high-poverty areas – who are largely people of color. Legislators in New Jersey scaled back their state law after a study found that 96% of persons subject to these enhancements were African American or Latino. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of drug-free school zone law.

Policies that disadvantage poor people: Most jurisdictions inadequately fund their indigent defense programs. While there are many high-quality public defender offices, in far too many cases indigent individuals are represented by public defenders with excessively high caseloads, or by assigned counsel with limited experience in criminal defense. Public defenders in Louisiana have recently sued the state and those in Kansas City, Missouri have protested their crushing caseloads.


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