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December 16, 2004

Racial disparity and sentencing reform

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today has this potent opinion column entitled "Fix sentencing guidelines: Move to end disparity along racial lines hasn't worked" authored by John Lewis and Robert Wilkins.  In addition to providing effective background on the Booker/Fanfan story, the piece gives particular attention to the important issue of racial disparity in federal sentencing:

[R]ather than reducing unfair racial disparities in federal sentencing, the evidence shows that the guidelines made the problem worse. Just before Thanksgiving, the Sentencing Commission released a report assessing whether the federal sentencing system has achieved the goals of the 1984 reforms. It confirmed what many observers have long known: In the past 20 years, the federal prison population has gotten significantly darker.

The report also shows that while the average federal prison sentence for black offenders was about five months longer than for whites in 1984, by 2001, the average sentence for blacks was almost 30 months longer.... The report should serve as a catalyst for major discussion about the racial impact of federal sentencing policy, though, to date, it has received scant attention. Of course, data showing vast racial disparities do not necessarily prove that the federal sentencing system discriminates.

But a critical goal of the federal sentencing guidelines was to eliminate unfair racial disparities in sentencing, and the Sentencing Commission has now concluded that "the sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum statutes have a greater adverse impact on black offenders than did the factors taken into account by judges in the discretionary system in place immediately prior to guidelines implementation."

Racial disparity in incarceration has been a moral blight on America from the beginning days of our criminal justice system. That this disparity continues despite (and indeed because of) the guidelines highlights the need for serious thinking and action on the issue.

Regardless of whether the Supreme Court strikes them down in the Booker and FanFan cases, Congress should repeal the federal sentencing guidelines along with the mandatory minimum drug sentences. Then, Congress should allow the Sentencing Commission to draft new guidelines that treat the minority community fairly. The experiment with the federal sentencing guidelines has failed — it's time to go back to the drawing board.   

December 16, 2004 at 05:42 PM | Permalink


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The color of your skin doesn't get you more time when it comes to sentencing in Federal court. From my observations, more minorities commit the types of crimes that have been targeted for prosecution (violent/drug crimes involving guns, crack, Hobbs Act robberies etc..) The penalties for those targeted crimes are very stiff and therefore minorites are going to show as having longer prison terms to serve. Furthermore, many of these people have long records therefore that is going to add to the sentence as well. Many times the U.S. Attorneys Office will take on a case for federal prosecution because of the persons criminal history when typically, absent this prior record, the case would have ended up in state court.

Posted by: Jed | Dec 17, 2004 9:29:16 AM

An interesting article in Legal Affairs notes how the government will be "whitening" the federal prisons by increasing the penalties for methamphetamine-related offenses, which are predominatly performed by whites. See Mark Schone, The Midwest's War on Cold Pills, Legal Affairs 30-37 (Nov./Dec. 2004). The article notes that Senator Schumer wants to increase the federal penalties for methamphetamine dealers to match that of crack dealers. Id. at 35. Beyond this, the article is an interesting read, because it illustrates the conflict between those who want to restrict access to precursors and the commercial interests who do not want a decrease in sales of precursors such as types of cold medicine.

Posted by: doug morris | Dec 17, 2004 10:00:46 AM

My son is Black his best friend was white, his best friend was getting into trouble long before my son but he has no convictions because the prosecutors would dismiss his charges or reduce them , my son got no such breaks. White guys that get into trouble are give 10x as many breaks as a Black guy , so they can end up with a shorter record , not because they commited fewer crimes but because they get all the breaks

Posted by: Carolyn | Oct 3, 2005 6:08:33 PM

I think that it's a race war. The drug crimes in all cases should have stiff penalities. Black shouldn't be labeled as crack dealers and white's should't be labeled as meth heads. I have seen all walks of life engage in this type of drug abuse. Penalities should be stiff all the way around.

Posted by: Ironhombre | Jan 29, 2006 11:19:51 PM

As a Detention deputy i see all race get processed through the criminal justice system and it true white offenders are more likely to get their charges dropped and then expunged. The fact is that white people are committing the same crimes and worse. But because they can afford a private attorney they are not faced with the same challenges as poor black offenders. Its time that punishment is based on on justice not the amount of money in a person pockets. some white offenders have admitted to buying a case. Paying lawyers, judges, victims and witnesses to make a situation go away. NOw is that justice or extortion, so who are the real criminals here.

Posted by: Ms Smith | Aug 27, 2006 9:59:45 AM

In Tim Brinn's case of a 1st time offender, I think 30 months was really harsh, but mom, you said he ahd a history of drug abuse & depression. If you knew your son was battling these two things why didnt you try to get him some help before the fact ?

Posted by: Sharon | Nov 28, 2007 12:41:24 PM

Timm is a good guy caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.. i was also in this kind of situation where after military school i sold maryjane and was busted.. Thankfully i walked away with only a few charges after turnin in my dealer.. Seems to me that alot of kids who went to OUR MILITARY school ended up in the drug game.. i can count atleast 30+ kids who went on to sell drugs, some got busted some got lucky..

Posted by: Military school student | Sep 24, 2011 1:01:37 AM

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