The Washington Post's WonkBlog reports today on a study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission revealing that when Black and White men are convicted of the same crime, the Black men get sentences that are on average almost 20 percent longer than their White counterparts', and this trend is getting worse. The study controlled for all sorts of factors that could have influenced the sentences, like weapons, age, education and criminal history, until all that's left to explain the difference is race. The blogger notes that the outcome of the 2005 case United States v. Booker gave judges tons more discretion to step away from sentencing guidelines. Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, also notes that prosecutors have a lot to do with this too, since they decide whether or not to charge someone with crimes that bring mandatory minimum sentences.
That finding suggests that giving judges more discretion in sentencing, as the Booker decision did in 2005, allows more racial bias to seep into the process. But Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group working to reduce bias in the criminal justice system, says there's more to it than that. He says that decisions by federal prosecutors — whether to seek a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence, for instance — are also driving the disparities.
“What we see is that the charging decisions of prosecutors are key,” he said via email. “Whether done consciously or not, prosecutors are more likely to charge African Americans with such charges than whites.”
It's hard to argue in the face of data like this that our criminal justice system is fair, or that individual merit is valued in our society. Apparently, merit is only valued among certain people. Others are considered to be meritless, therefore can be locked up and the keys thrown out. It's striking to read this story so soon after a 2015 story about prisoners and Harvard has found some revival on social media. In 2015, the Harvard debating team lost to three prisoners who were part of the Bard Prison Initiative, which provides a rigorous college education to incarcerated men in New York State. That story gets out again
Learn more about the Sentencing Project here.