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January 16, 2013 (The Sentencing Project)

Race and Justice News

Courts: Death Sentences Successfully Challenged in NC
Research: Black Drug Offenders Pay a "Double Penalty"
Racial Disparity in Sentencing
Racial Disparity in Juvenile Placement Rates Decreases
Neighborhood Structural Disadvantage Matters


North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act of 2009 allowed for a death sentence to be commuted to a sentence of life without parole based on statistical evidence of racial bias. In 2011, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill that would have effectively repealed the Act. It was vetoed by Governor Perdue, but the legislature did not have the votes to override the veto. Under the Act, lawyers for Marcus Robinson were successful in having Robinson’s death sentence commuted to life without parole, citing a study from Michigan State University College of Law indicating that prosecutors across North Carolina improperly used their preemptory challenges to systemically exclude qualified black jurors from jury service.

The NC General Assembly subsequently passed a revision to the Act that restricted the use of statistics to only the county or judicial district where the crime occurred, instead of the entire state or region. It also required more than statistical evidence alone to prove bias. In December, three additional people successfully challenged their death sentences under the revised Act by presenting evidence that the state manipulated the jury selection process of black jurors. The case centered on the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges, which allow legal teams to strike a given number of people from a jury pool. In the three cases in question, peremptory strikes were used by the state between two and four times more often when dealing with prospective black jurors than white jurors. The discovery of notes written by prosecutors was crucial. For example, a white former drug dealer was declared “a fine guy,” while a black woman with a clean record was objectionable because she lived in a “bad area.”


Using data from three U.S. district courts, Cassia Spohn and Lisa Sample examined possible racial and ethnic bias in the sentencing of individuals who fit the stereotype of “a dangerous drug offender” (a male with prior trafficking convictions who used a weapon during the commission of the current offense). Prior convictions and the use of a weapon are facts which, under presumptive guidelines, increase the minimum sentences offenders receive irrespective of their race/ethnicity. According to their study published in Crime & Delinquency, “having all the characteristics of the stereotypical dangerous drug offender only affected the minimum sentences faced by black offenders. This suggests that the combination of being male, having a prior drug trafficking conviction, and using a weapon during the offense is taken into consideration when the presumptive sentence is calculated for black offenders, but not when calculating the presumptive sentence for white or Hispanic offenders.” As way of explanation, they suggest the possibility that prosecutors may more often use their discretion and file a notice of prior convictions when offenders are black males.


One of the reasons states have adopted presumptive sentencing guidelines is the belief that reducing judicial discretion in sentencing decisions reduces unwarranted disparity related to race and ethnicity. Research on whether presumptive guidelines achieve this aim has focused primarily on how race and ethnicity affect the imposition of prison sentences before and after the adoption of presumptive guidelines within a state. In a recent study in Crime & Delinquency, Xia Wang and colleagues took a different approach, comparing the relationship between race and ethnicity in states with (a) no guidelines, (b) voluntary guidelines, and (c) presumptive guidelines. Controlling for criminal history, crime of conviction, and other factors, they found that blacks and Hispanics were significantly more likely than were whites to be sentenced to jail or prison in non-guideline and voluntary guideline states, but not in presumptive guideline states. However, among offenders sentenced to incarceration, there were no significant differences in the length of sentences imposed on blacks and Hispanics compared to whites.


In a recent article by Jaya Davis and Jon Sorenson in Crime & Delinquency, the authors calculated the expected placement rates among racial groups based upon their rates of arrest. The authors found that disparity in the black to white juvenile placement rates has decreased since 1999; however, black juveniles were still placed in the juvenile justice system at rates 70% higher than white juveniles. This decline varied substantially by jurisdiction. No conclusions could be drawn about whether the changes were due to state efforts to address disproportionate minority confinement that were spawned by the OJJDP mandate versus possible improvement in legal defense systems, investment in alternatives to incarceration, or other local initiatives. The authors also point to the need to affect changes in black youths’ arrest rates in addition to eliminating post-arrest bias.


A recent study by Thomas McNulty and others examined the relationship between individual level characteristics and neighborhood context in order to explain violent behavior among adolescents between ages 12 and 16. Results from the study demonstrate that low verbal ability and low school attainment are risk factors for violence that result from the exposure to structurally disadvantaged areas. This finding additionally helps explain the black-white gap in violence because black adolescents are more likely to reside in areas characterized by low family socioeconomic status, exposure to delinquent peers, and lack of access to pro-social institutions. Thus, verbal ability and school achievement partially mediate or help explain the effect of neighborhoods on violent behavior.

Issue Area(s): Racial Disparity