New Study Provides Evidence on the Effect of Race on Criminal Sentencing

New research by scholars at Loyola University Chicago, the University of Mississippi, and Barnard College in New York City examines whether criminal defendants of different races are punished with the same level of severity.

The researchers organized an experiment where respondents indicated what they viewed as an appropriate sentence for a series of hypothetical individuals convicted of federal crimes. The experiment signaled the race of the defendant by using distinctively “Black” and “White” names, making it more apparent in an effort to assess whether Americans are more punitive toward purportedly Black defendants. The findings indicate that respondents who exhibit signs of high racial resentment assign longer sentences to Black defendants, while respondents who appeared to believe that racism is a problem assigned shorter sentences to those same hypothetical defendants.

The authors wrote that “respondents who view persistent racial inequalities as the product of both past and ongoing institutional factors prescribed lengthier sentences for White defendants; those who discount these explanations prescribed lengthier sentences for Black defendants. Some Americans — those who report particularly high levels of cognitive awareness of systemic racial discrimination — prescribe shorter sentences for purportedly Black defendants than they do for purportedly White defendants, thus offsetting the effects of anti-Black biases in other segments of the population.”

However, the authors note that “although these varying tendencies may ‘cancel out’ in the aggregate, they are likely to produce unjust outcomes.”

The full study, ““Race, Crime, and the Public’s Sentencing Preferences,” was published on the website of the journal Public Opinion Quarterly. It may be accessed here.

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