Study: Judges May Sentence Black Defendants More Harshly

Gavel posed in front of windowsJudges may sentence black defendants who commit low severity crimes more harshly than their white counterparts who commit the same crimes, according to a study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.

According to the United States Department of Justice, black inmates made up 37% of the state and federal prison population in 2013, though African-Americans made up just 13.2% of the general population in 2014.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reports nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are black, and African-Americans are incarcerated at six times the incarceration rate for white people.

Are African-Americans Sentenced More Harshly for Petty Crimes?

Researchers looked at more than 17,000 sentencing decisions in South Carolina courts to explore what they called a “liberation hypothesis.” The hypothesis suggests judges have to make more subjective assessments when the facts of the case are ambiguous or the crimes are relatively minor. This may increase the odds that factors unrelated to the crime, particularly race, will play a role. South Carolina has no sentencing guidelines, allowing judges greater discretion in criminal sentencing.

As predicted, the study found sentences were similar for black and white defendants who had significant criminal histories. When black people had no previous criminal record, they were 43% more likely than white people to be jailed. Among those with a “moderate” criminal past, blacks were 10% more likely than white people to be jailed.

Researchers say this indicates that judges may sentence black defendants more harshly when a defendant’s previous criminal record is insignificant or nonexistent. Thus, unintentional racial biases in sentencing may have the most impact on those whose criminal records and actions are the least serious.

Drug Sentencing: Harsher Sentences Based on Race?

Some advocates of tough sentencing have argued that black people may commit more crimes than white people. A number of studies undermine this claim, particularly regarding drug use and distribution. A 2011 study found white people are more likely to abuse drugs than black people, with 9% of white people and 5% of African-Americans showing symptoms of substance abuse. Yet, African-Americans are 10 times more likely than white people to be arrested for drug crimes.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, black people comprise 14% of regular drug users but account for 37% of drug arrests. Laws that may disproportionately target people of color may help explain this difference. For example, federal penalties for crack cocaine crimes were 100 times harsher than those for powdered cocaine. Statistically, black people are significantly more likely to use crack cocaine than white people. Though this disparity changed in 2010 with the Fair Sentencing Act, other disparities may continue to exist.


  1. Carson, E. A., PhD. (2014, September 30). Prisoners in 2013 [PDF]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  2. Criminal justice fact sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. Helmore, E. (2016, February 29). Racial bias evident in South Carolina criminal sentences, study reveals. Retrieved from
  4. Race and the drug war. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  5. Study identifies racial bias in US court sentencing decisions. (2016, February 29). Retrieved from
  6. Szalavitz, M., & Szalavitz, M. (2011, November 7). Study: Whites more likely to abuse drugs than blacks. Retrieved from
  7. USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. (2015, December 2). Retrieved from

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  • Janeen


    March 3rd, 2016 at 2:17 PM

    If you say things like this then one has to wonder where the fairness in our system actually is. It seems to be missing more and more lately and those who are the least able to fight against that are the ones who are continually losing the battle. I don’t know whether judges are doing this intentionally or not, I like to think not, that this is just their interpretation of the law. But there has to be something to it when people form all walks of life are seeing that it is happening.

  • Prudence


    March 4th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    This is all so disappointing

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