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Study Finds People of Color More Often Deemed Eligible for Life Sentences in Federal Court

Sentencing Guidelines May Reinforce Bias in Criminal Justice System

By Maryland Today Staff

Scales of justice

People of color who are convicted in federal court are disproportionately likely to be sentenced to life in prison because of mandatory minimum sentences and other structural factors in the justice system, new UMD research finds.

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Convicted Black and Hispanic people are more likely than offenders who are white to face the prospect of life sentences under federal sentencing guidelines, according to recent findings by University of Maryland and Arizona State University researchers.

The study published in the journal Criminology analyzed seven years of sentencing data on more than 366,000 non-immigration offenders convicted and sentenced in 90 federal district courts from 2010 to 2017.

“Two out of three people serving life terms are defendants of color, and our study raises additional concerns about the extent to which life sentences are impacted by racial bias,” said Professor Brian D. Johnson of UMD’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the lead author.

He and his co-authors, Arizona State criminology Professor Cassia Spohn and UMD doctoral candidate Anat Kimchi, considered the demographic and legal factors associated with eligibility for life sentences, as well as the factors that shape judicial decisions to impose such sentences.

Of the total number of offenders studied, more than 4,800 were eligible for life imprisonment and almost 1,200 received life sentences, the study found.

Offenders who were eligible for life imprisonment differed from other federal defendants in several ways: Black offenders accounted for fewer than a third of all cases but constituted nearly half of those eligible for life sentences. By comparison, white offenders accounted for more than a third of all cases but constituted less than a quarter of those eligible for life sentences.

The increased likelihood of a life sentence for Black offenders stemmed primarily from the fact that they were more likely to be convicted at trial and sentenced under mandatory minimum statutes, and less likely to benefit from departures from sentencing guidelines. But once these process-related variables were taken into account, the racial disparity disappeared and ethnic disparity favoring Hispanics emerged.

“Our findings suggest that racial inequality in the justice system can be understood as the combined output of the sum of individual decisions by court actors, and the set of broader institutionalized biases embedded in formal policies, procedures, and practices of the courts,” the authors concluded.

The authors noted that findings based on the federal system—which is unique in its caseload composition, guidelines and punishment procedures—can't be generalizedto state systems. In addition, the study was limited to convicted offenders and lacked information on initial charging or plea bargaining decisions.

“Although life-without-parole sentences are one of the most unique and controversial punishments in America, they’re actually one of the least studied aspects of the criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “If there are racial disparities in this type of sentencing—as this study suggests—we must investigate the mechanisms that contribute to them.”

The paper was dedicated to the memory of co-author Kimchi, who died after the manuscript was accepted for publication.

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