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Study: Blacks Get Longer Federal Prison Sentences Than Whites

September 24, 1995

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Blacks get prison sentences about 10 percent longer than whites for similar federal crimes, according to a computer analysis published Sunday.

Whites convicted in 1992-93 received an average sentence of 33 months, while blacks got 36 months, The Tennessean reported. The computer study examined all 80,000 federal court convictions during the two years, comparing cases where the seriousness of the crime and criminal histories were equal.

The study found the highest black-white sentencing disparity _ 13 percent _ in the West. The South had the lowest regional disparity, with 3 percent. Sentences for blacks were 12 percent higher in the Midwest and 10 percent in the Northeast.

Hispanics received sentences comparable to whites. Too few Asians and other minorities were convicted of federal crimes for a statistically valid comparison, the newspaper said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson blamed the disparity on the subconscious cultural bias of the majority white justice system. The federal court system has 82 black judges and 1,382 white judges.

``It’s the non-dramatic, institutional racism that’s the problem,″ Jackson told the paper. ``Cultural bias exists and some people are punished on stereotypes ... so much so, it appears to be natural, it’s so standard.″

But Richard Conaboy, chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, said some of the differences may be attributable to factors in sentencing that the study did not take into account, such as a defendant’s work record.

The seven-member Sentencing Commission was created a decade ago to equalize federal criminal sentences. It keeps the records analyzed by The Tennessean.

An analyst at the Sentencing Commission, whom The Tennessean did not identify, faulted the newspaper’s method, saying examining crimes by category may not reflect differences within categories. Under federal sentencing guidelines, such differences can include whether a weapon was used.

But statisticians from Vanderbilt University, the University of North Carolina, Mississippi State and Pennsylvania State universities all agreed with the method.

``This is consistent with research I’ve done. The race effect is there,″ said Darrell Steffensmeier, who heads the Research Center for Crime and the Courts at Penn State.

At least a dozen studies in the past 20 years have attempted to determine if one race received longer federal prison sentences than another, and those split almost evenly in their findings.

Critics have complained that few of those studies comprehensively compared defendants who committed the same kind of crimes and had the same criminal backgrounds. The Tennessean said those factors were equal in its study.

The newspaper found numerous cases like those of Steve Rolen and William Hester. Both were convicted in 1993 of possessing firearms in eastern Tennessee. The charges against them were identical. Their criminal pasts were similar. Both were sentenced to federal prison.

Rolen, who is white, received a seven-year sentence.

Hester, who is black, got more than 15 years.

Rolen, now in federal prison in Manchester, Ky., says his lighter sentence was for helping the federal government unravel several unsolved crimes he had committed.

``They’ve known me all their life. They like me. I got off extremely lucky _ just for giving them some offenses I’d committed they didn’t know I’d committed,″ he said.

Sumter Comp, an assistant federal defender in Nashville, said he doubted that judges could explain that all cases involving blacks were worse than those involving whites.

``The only other explanation has got to be that white guys are better than black guys, and that’s just wrong,″ he said.

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