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Black Offenders More Likely Than White Offenders To Be Eligible For Life Sentences

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Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is one of the most distinctive and least studied aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. A new study analyzed seven years of federal sentencing data to investigate the associations between life sentences in federal courts and race/ethnicity. The study found 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, by researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) and Arizona State University (ASU), appears in Criminology, a publication of the American Society of Criminology.

“Two out of three people serving life terms are defendants of color, and some believe that life sentences are fraught with racial bias,” notes Brian D. Johnson, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the UMD, who led the study. “If there are racial disparities in this type of sentencing, we must investigate the mechanisms that contribute to them.”

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. They 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, the researchers say, because many federal offenders are not eligible for a life sentence and most fall outside the guidelines that recommend it. 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 suggest.

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 once the process-related variables were factored in, the racial disparity disappeared and ethnic disparity favoring Hispanics emerged. This suggests that race and ethnicity are indirectly related to life sentences through these intermediate procedural mechanisms, such as the mode of conviction, mandatory minimums, and departures from sentencing guidelines.

“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,” says Cassia Spohn, professor of criminology and criminal justice at ASU, who coauthored the study.

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 lacks information on initial charging or plea bargaining decisions.

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One thought on “Black Offenders More Likely Than White Offenders To Be Eligible For Life Sentences

  • August 11, 2021 at 2:22 pm
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    I am so tired of all these fake supremacist propaganda lies! I spent more time in jail as a juvenile for running away than my brothers family has over their entire lives combined. They are all gang members, drug dealers, murderers, thieves and literally pimps for the past 3 generations I only ran away because I wasn’t family I was property I was a source of income and entertainment they sold and tortured me along with my sisters. The courts never helped me when I was 17 they found my story true but told me I was to old to help and sent me back! I’m one of 10 kids I’m one of only 5 who survived to adulthood and the only girl left alive today I am the only one who actually escaped! If you think you’re the solution you are the problem this is the problem this crap keeps predators on top and sacrifices children to them but it does not solve anything. Criminals don’t need society fighting for them they have given up all rights when they violated another’s all this racist crap comes from the jails and prisons it’s the criminals not the system or society who causes these issues it’s an excuse monsters use to be monsters because society gave it to them. Criminals don’t deserve more mercy than they give all the funding spent on them should be spent on their victims. The only help as a victim of modern day slavery I was given was therapy which tries to make it seem like something is wrong with me rather than those who tortured me they carefully try to make me go with their narratives that keep me down I can’t say I’m a slave even though I was property bought, sold and traded owned by others profited off of and I paid the consequences for speaking up or running I have to say child abuse victim or human trafficking survivor because everyone knows the word slave only applies to black people according to woke society. I’m disabled today and can’t get a doctor to take me seriously but all of my former owners and torturers are free thanks to tax payers and bs like this.

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