why blacks spend more time in jail
If you look at the range of penalties, most of the black-white gaps in criminal sentences disappear when you include initial charges. Source: Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and Its Sentencing Consequences by Rehavi and Starr.
It’s long been known by researchers that American blacks are more likely to spend time in jail than whites and they serve longer prison sentences. However, it’s not known exactly why that is. Do blacks commit more serious crimes? Are courts handing out tougher sentences to black defendants? Are different laws applied to them? Since a lot of evidence in this areas focuses on the terminal stages of prosecution (e.g., pleas bargaining), it’s hard to to tell.
A new paper by Marit Rehavi (UBC econ) and Sonja Starr (Michigan Law) uses some excellent new data on Federal sentencing behavior to come up with a striking and simple answer. Blacks receive longer sentences because prosecutors are more likely to charge them with crimes that require minimum sentences. From the paper:
This study provides robust evidence that black arrestees in the federal system—particularly black men—experience moderately but significantly worse case outcomes than do white defendants arrested for the same crimes and with the same criminal history. Most of that disparity appears to be introduced at the initial charging stage, which has previously been overlooked by the literature on racial disparity in criminal justice. Other factors equal, we estimate conservatively that, compared to white men, black men face charges that are on average about seven to ten percent more severe on various severity scales, and are more than twice as likely to face charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences. These disparities persist after charge bargaining and, ultimately, are a major contributor to the large black-white disparities in prison sentence length. Indeed, sentence disparities (at the mean and at almost all deciles in the sentence-length distribution) can be almost completely explained by three factors: the original arrest offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and the prosecutor’s initial choice of charges.
In other words, in the modern system, prosecutors often have the option of charging you with crimes that require that you serve some minimal amount of time. Blacks are more likely to be charged with violations carrying minimal sentences and this accounts for most of the black-white gap in sentencing. According to some estimates, like Table 1 (p. 22), the odds double that a prosecutor will charge a black male with a minimum sentence offense. Depending on who you measure it, this results in a punishment that’s about 7-10% more severe.
The strength of the paper is that the authors have access to Federal data bases that provide data from arrest to conviction. That way, the authors can account for issues like prior criminal record and the severity of the offense, as recorded by law enforcement at the time of the arrest. There are some limits to the analysis. Certain types of crimes are excluded because relevant data doesn’t exist. For example, one important class of crimes, drug offenses, are excluded because amount of drugs is not reported in the data base. Regardless, it’s a massive data set that covers an important portion of the legal system. Bottom line: no matter how you look at it, prosecutors are being more harsh on black defendants.