A recent study published in Criminology by researchers at the University of Maryland and at Arizona State University (ASU) finds that Black and Hispanic offenders were more likely to be eligible for life sentences under federal sentencing guidelines, but not more likely to receive life sentences.
The study analyzed seven years of federal sentencing data to investigate the associations between life sentences in federal courts and race/ethnicity.
“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 the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the lead author.
Johnson and his colleagues analyzed data on more than 366,000 non-immigration offenders convicted and sentenced in 90 federal district courts from 2010 to 2017. They 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.
The researchers also examined intermediate punishment processes that may indirectly contribute to racial disparity.
The study separated eligibility for a life sentence from its imposition. “This is an important distinction because many federal offenders are not eligible for a life sentence and most fall outside the guidelines that recommend it,” Johnson said.
Including all offenders in an analysis of life imprisonment can provide valuable information on its overall prevalence, but it conflates the legal and procedural mechanisms that shape eligibility for life with judicial decisions to impose it, the researchers said.
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.
As a whole, Black offenders were more likely to be sentenced to life, but mostly because they were negatively impacted by intermediate procedural mechanisms, such as mandatory minimums, trial conviction and guidelines departures. Once these process-related variables were factored in, 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.
Among the study’s limitations, the authors note their focus on the federal system, which is unique in its caseload composition, guidelines, and punishment procedures, and thus, not generalizable to 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 in the United States,” 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 is dedicated to the memory of coauthor Anat Kimchi. Kimchi was a talented doctoral candidate in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice who died after the manuscript was accepted for publication. According to her coauthors, Kimchi’s contributions to the article were invaluable, and she is sorely missed by many.
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