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Thirty Years of Sentencing Reform: The Quest for a Racially Neutral Sentencing Process

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2000
75 pages
This essay aims to inform the debate on race, crime, and justice by critically evaluating recent empirical research that has examined the effect of race/ethnicity on sentence severity and by searching for clues to the contexts or circumstances in which race/ethnicity makes a difference.
Forty recent and methodologically sophisticated studies that have investigated the linkages between race/ethnicity and sentence severity are reviewed in this essay; included are 32 studies of sentencing decisions in State courts and 8 studies of sentence outcomes at the Federal level. The findings of these studies suggest that race and ethnicity do play an important role in contemporary sentencing decisions. Black and Hispanic offenders -- particularly those who are young, male, or unemployed -- are more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to prison; in some jurisdictions, they also receive longer sentences or differential benefits from guideline departures than do similarly situated white offenders. There is evidence that other categories of racial minorities also are singled out for harsher sanctions. These include racial minority offenders convicted of drug offenses, those who accumulate more serious prior criminal records, those who victimize whites, or those who refuse to plead guilty or are unable to secure pretrial release. Thus, this review suggests that the "discrimination thesis" cannot be laid to rest. 3 exhibits, 14 notes, 140 references, and appended exhibit of the indirect and interaction effects found in studies of race and sentencing

Date Published: January 1, 2000