Structural bias in the sentencing of felony defendants

Soc Sci Res. 2013 Sep;42(5):1207-21. doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2013.04.003. Epub 2013 Apr 28.


As incarceration rates have risen in the US, so has the overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos among prison inmates. Whether and to what degree these disparities are due to bias in the criminal courts remains a contentious issue. This article pursues two lines of argument toward a structural account of bias in the criminal law, focusing on (1) cumulative disadvantages that may accrue over successive stages of the criminal justice process, and (2) the contexts of racial disadvantage in which courts are embedded. These arguments are tested using case-level data on male defendants charged with felony crimes in urban US counties in 2000. Multilevel binary and ordinal logit models are used to estimate contextual effects on pretrial detention, guilty pleas, and sentence severity, and cumulative effects are estimated as conditional probabilities that are allowed to vary by race across all three outcomes. Results yield strong, but qualified, evidence of cumulative disadvantage accruing to black and Latino defendants, but do not support the contextual hypotheses. When the cumulative effects of bias are taken into account, the estimated probability of the average African American or Latino felon going to prison is 26% higher than that of the average Anglo.

Keywords: Court; Cumulative disadvantage; Prosecution; Racial disparity; Sentencing.