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December 11, 2012 (The Sentencing Project)

Race and Justice News

  • Illinois Data Show Racial Disproportionality in Arrests and Prosecution for Drug Offenses
  • What Explains Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests?
  • Prosecutorial Decisions to Charge Mandatory Minimum Sentences Contribute to Disparity in Federal Sentences
  • Interpersonal Racial Discrimination Contributes to Youth Offending

Illinois Data Show Racial Disproportionality in Arrests and Prosecution for Drug Offenses

Illinois established a Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission in 2008 made up of policy makers, government leaders, and justice personnel for the purpose of understanding and alleviating the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos for drug law violations. As part of the Commission’s work, Tom Lyons and colleagues examined statewide arrest records and Cook County (Chicago) court data. In an article published in Race & Justice, they report that they found racial disproportionality in arrests for drug crimes in urban, suburban, and rural counties throughout the state, with more pronounced disproportionality among arrestees with prior arrests than among first-time arrestees. Court data showed that after controlling for other variables, including criminal history, African Americans were approximately 2.2 times more likely than whites, and Latinos were approximately 1.6 times more likely than whites, to be prosecuted for drug offenses.

What Explains Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests?

Over the last several years, researchers have been studying racial disparities in Seattle Police Department (SPD) drug enforcement practices. Through several studies, Katherine Beckett demonstrated that blacks were significantly overrepresented in drug arrests among those violating drug laws. Based on her research, she contends that the disparity is at least partly attributable to police organizational practices, such as a focus on crack cocaine enforcement, outdoor drug sales, and the failure to treat similar drug markets alike. In a recent study appearing in Criminology and Public Policy, Engel and others examined SPD’s deployment of resources by comparing arrest patterns with 911 calls. They found a high degree of congruity between drug-related 911 calls and drug arrests. They go on to suggest that SPD arrests more blacks for drugs because they receive more calls from black neighborhoods. In response, Beckett points out that the SPD has acknowledged that they do not consistently use 911 call data to allocate narcotics enforcement resources, and therefore Engel’s study does not capture the variability in SPD deployment practices. Her contention is that the most that might be said about Engel’s findings is that both civilian complaints and drug arrests are higher for blacks in comparison to those who actually use and deliver illicit drugs.

Prosecutorial Decisions to Charge Mandatory Minimum Sentences Contribute to Disparity in Federal Sentences

A new study by Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi provides evidence that prosecutorial decisions contribute to racial disparity in federal sentencing. The question of if and how prosecutorial decisions relate to racial disparity has been of particular interest since a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission suggested that expanded judicial discretion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s U.S. v Booker decision was responsible for increasing disparities. Subsequent analyses suggest that disparity that is sometimes attributed to judicial decisions is instead explained by “upstream” decisions (see for example Ulmer et al.). The particular contribution of Starr and Rehavi’s current study is that they trace cases from arrest to sentencing, examining disparities across all post-arrest and pre-sentencing stages. After accounting for a number of important factors including arrest offense, criminal history, district, age, the presence of multiple defendants, and county-level poverty, unemployment, income, and crime statistics,  their results show that prosecutors’ choices to bring mandatory minimum charges were significantly related to sentencing disparities.

Interpersonal Racial Discrimination Contributes to Youth Offending

A prospective study of 5th graders in Georgia and Iowa by Callie Burt and others published in the American Sociological Review found that experiencing interpersonal racial discrimination increases the likelihood of Black youth later offending, suggesting that interpersonal racial discrimination plays a role in racial disparities in crime. The study also found that the effects of discrimination on offending were lower among youth who had been prepared for encountering discrimination and prejudice (e.g., family members talked about discrimination or about the possibility that youth may be treated badly or unfairly). 

Issue Area(s): Racial Disparity