Economists and law professors at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania have published a new study that confirms what reformers have been saying for decades: the criminal justice system is racially biased. The study is a huge step toward unveiling and ending the racial disparities that still persist in the United States.
Those of us seeking to end mass incarceration know it is the New Jim Crow. With more black men under the control of corrections departments than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War, mass incarceration is the biggest civil rights issue of our time. We’ve presented data pleading for reform to remove the chokehold of poverty-to-prison from our communities: people of color make up 30 percent of the United States’ population, but account for 60 percent of those in prison; black defendants receive longer prison sentence than white defendants; black Americans are far more likely to be arrested than white people. The statistics go on.
But many lawmakers, skeptics, and those who just don’t get it (or don’t want to) argue that these disparities occur because white people are inherently somehow more law abiding than people of color, or that white people commit less serious crimes. The underlying premise is that since the law doesn’t mention race, the justice system isn’t racially discriminatory.
Think again. This seminal study has now “demonstrated conclusively for the first time that racial bias affects judicial sentencing decisions.” The researchers used a rigorous statistical method that not only controlled for other variables but also controlled for “unobservables” (that may correlate with race), and conducted the study on a statistically significant sample size in Cook County, Illinois.
They found that “judges take race into account in their sentencing decisions” and that “the magnitude of this effect is substantial.” Judges punish criminal defendants differently based on their race — and only their race. Specifically, judges are far more likely to sentence black defendants to prison than white defendants.
The researchers divided judges into categories based on level of race bias. To make these results concrete, they compare two examples. There are two identically situated defendants, who differ only by race — one black and one white. If they are sentenced by a judge who is among the least affected by racial bias (meaning in one of the best case scenarios), the black defendant is still 30% more likely to end up in prison. If they are sentenced by judge who is among the most affected by racial bias (one of the worst case scenarios), the black defendant is almost twice as likely to end up in prison.
Racial bias is at work in almost all courtrooms — and in all parts of the criminal justice system. This study drives home how that is happening, its unfairness, and why we urgently need reform.