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[1] 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.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 24, 2012 at 12:01 am

11 Responses

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  1. I’ve spent nearly 10 years trying to get inside the black box of our local prosecutor’s office to little avail. I did one analysis of a little bit of juvenile data collected by an activist AD (involving hand coding cases from two different computer data systems) and, indeed, found evidence of charging differences, but the sample was too small for any definitive conclusions.



    January 24, 2012 at 12:30 am

  2. @ow: This data is incredibly hard to get. I know the lead author. Not only is she a meticulous methodologist, she has an uncanny ability to get bureaucracies produce data. If you read the paper, there’s a series of papers forthcoming on sentencing disparities.



    January 24, 2012 at 8:28 pm

  3. @fabio: Thanks for the kind words (and publicizing the paper!). However, I can’t take credit for the data – it was all Sonja =)



    January 24, 2012 at 9:24 pm

  4. […] why blacks spend more time in jail ( Share this:FacebookTwitterLinkedInStumbleUponTumblrDiggRedditPrintEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → Caution some effort required ← Very interesting – my dyslexia makes all the words look just fine… Yeah well that’s “good”… “o’s” in wrong order… ha-ha No comments yet […]


  5. sorry to be a bore and just refer to older literature but it seems relevant to the argument made in the paper and blog. In the 1930s and 1940, Howard Odum was running the Institute for Research in Social Science in Chapel Hill. With him worked Guy Johnson on a project examining sentencing in courts in North Carolina. He found that there were differences in sentences depending on the ethnic background of the accused. Johnson’s Master’s student, Harold Garfinkel, wrote his Master’s Thesis on accounts given by judges for sentences and related them to the statistical analysis of his supervisor.

    In the case in hand, it may be worthwhile conducting a similar study to see what accounts prosecutors are giving today on choosing particular charges and link them back to the statistical differences found by the authors. Such a study may nicely complement the authors findings.

    Some references:
    Brazil, W.D., 1988. Howard W. Odum: the building years, 1884-1930, New York: Garland Publishers.
    Garfinkel, H., 1949. Research note on inter- and intra-racial homicide. Social Forces, 27(369-381).
    Johnson, G.B., 1941. The Negro and Crime. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 217(September), p.93-104.


    Dirk vom Lehn

    January 27, 2012 at 9:28 am

  6. @Dirk: The authors make it clear that there is quite massive literature on this topic and that their analysis is quite consistent with prior research. What is impressive is that it uses data that’s truly staggering and was simply not available to earlier researchers. You should definitely read the paper.



    January 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm

  7. […] Via OrgTheory, a study finds that the more severe penalties faced by blacks arrested for the same charge and with the same criminal history is almost entirely explained by the prosecutor’s choice of charge (particularly those with minimum sentences). It used to be the case that judges decided penalties, but there has been a great rise in the number of laws mandating minimum sentences to take that decision out of their hands, which effectively puts it in those of the prosecutor. That is a major component of the story the late William Stuntz tells in his recent book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. […]


  8. @fabiorojas my little add-on was not meant as a critique of the paper, just an observation: things haven’t changed much since the 1930s/40s which is quite depressing. Maybe the accounts given differ though? Thanks for drawing our attention to this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dirk vom Lehn

    January 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm

  9. […] why blacks spend more time in jail ( […]


  10. […] Via Colorlines, a new study from the Duke econ department. In a sample of 700 Florida non-capital felony cases, the racial composition of the jury had a big effect on conviction rates. The finding? An all-white jury convicts a black defendant 81% of the time. White defendants are convicted about 66% of the time. The results remain when you toss in control variables.When you add a single black juror, the rates more or less equalize. A mixed-race jury convicts  whites and black at about equal rates (71% vs. 73%). See our previous discussion of race and sentencing here. […]


  11. […] they face racially biased juries; and when it’s time to sentence them, they receive harsher penalties and join an already overrepresented group in the prison system (African Americans are more […]


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