Washington – Black and Hispanic men are more likely to receive longer prison sentences than their white counterparts since the Supreme Court loosened federal sentencing rules, a government study has concluded.
The study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission reignited a long-running debate about whether federal judges need to be held to mandatory guidelines in order to stamp out what might appear to be inherent biases and dramatically disparate sentences.
The report analyzed sentences meted out since the January 2005 U.S. v. Booker decision gave federal judges much more sentencing discretion.
For years, legal experts have argued over the disparity in sentencing between black and white men. The commission found that the difference peaked in 1999 with blacks receiving 14 percent longer sentences. By 2002, however, the commission found no statistical difference.
After the Booker decision, “those differences appear to have been increasing steadily,” with black men receiving sentences that were up to 10 percent longer than those imposed on whites, the commission said.
Using another method of analyzing the data, the study found black men received sentences that were 23 percent longer than white men’s.
Hispanic men, meanwhile, received sentences that were almost 7 percent longer than white men’s. Immigrants also got longer sentences than U.S. citizens did.
The report also found that defendants with some college education consistently have received shorter sentences than those with no college education, but the differences in sentence length remained about the same after the decision.
The commission warned that its report should be read with caution and may not mean that race or class is influencing judges when they hand down longer sentences.
“Judges make decisions when sentencing offenders based on many legal and other legitimate considerations that are not or cannot be measured,” said the commission, an independent body of the federal judiciary. “The analysis presented in this report cannot explain why the observed differences in sentence length exist but only that they do exist.”
For example, a judge who’s sentencing two offenders who were convicted of similar crimes might impose a longer sentence on the offender with a more violent criminal past, information that wasn’t available to the study’s authors.
Nonetheless, opponents of looser sentencing guidelines pounced on the commission’s study, saying it demonstrates that the rules are needed.
“People who commit similar crimes should receive similar sentences,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “Unfortunately, without sentencing guidelines for courts to follow, some individuals have received harsher penalties than others despite committing similar crimes.”…
Defense advocates have argued for more than 20 years that the more severe sentences given for crack cocaine offenses, compared with those handed down for crimes that involve powder cocaine, were unfair to African-American defendants. A majority of crack cocaine defendants are African-American, while most powder cocaine defendants are white.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission recognized the disparity and recommended lighter penalties in crack cocaine cases, prompting judges to review the sentences of prisoners across the country.
And this Senate “compromise” –
Earlier this morning, Sen. Dick Durbin announced that he and Sen. Jeff Sessions had reached a “compromise” in the Senate gym over Durbin’s bill, which would have eliminated the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for crack vs. powder cocaine.
“If you ever wonder if anything good ever happens there, it appears something good might have happened there,” Durbin said, which may or may not have been an oblique reference to former Congressman Eric Massa‘s tale about being lobbied by Rahm Emanuel in the House gym. “Senator [Orrin] Hatch was there to witness it.”
The compromise was that Durbin would accept Sessions’ amendment to change the disparity from 100 to 1 to 20 to 1. In return, Sessions offered to withdraw his amendments that would have narrowed the circumstances under which a judge could reduce penalties for offenders who acted with “fear, impulse or affection,” and would have imposed a 10-year mandatory maximum for simple possession rather than eliminating the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession entirely.