Penn Law study shows race-based discrimination in criminal sentencing

Law prof David Abrams and other researchers used new research methods to reach their conclusion

· September 5, 2012, 10:34 pm

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Both academics and pundits have speculated for decades that there is race-based discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Now, Law School professor David Abrams has finally confirmed this popular notion.

In a recently released paper which Abrams co-authored with University of Chicago professor Marianne Bertrand and Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan, the research team found conclusive evidence that racial bias influenced judicial sentencing in their study of criminal prosecutions in Cook County, Ill., which contains the city of Chicago and is the second most populous county in the United States.

The research team employed a newly-devised methodology in order to reach this conclusion. Whereas previous studies have attempted to examine sentence lengths while controlling for other variables that might impact a judicial sentence, the research team recognized that there are always some unobservable factors which, according to Abrams, render these studies “ultimately imperfect.”

“There are always going to be things that you can’t observe like, ‘how good was your lawyer,’ or ‘what was your demeanor like in court,’ and those things could be correlated with race and they could affect the outcome,” he said.

The researchers therefore decided to study the “racial gap” in sentencing, which refers to the difference in each judge’s sentence lengths and decisions to incarcerate white and black defendants.

Whereas other studies have demonstrated the existence of a racial gap and thereby concluded that race was a factor in the decisions, Abrams and his team argued that those findings had incorporated other unmeasurable variables.

“Maybe the racial gap is not zero because you didn’t control for something … because you can’t always control for everything” he said. “But this gap should be the same across judges, unless race is playing a role in their decision making.”

After seven years of work on the project, their research showed a significant variation in the racial gap between judges in their decisions to incarcerate defendants, leading to their ultimate conclusion.

Looking at potential future implications of the research, Abrams noted that there is a possibility for behavioral changes among judges themselves if they recognize that they may be biased with regard to race.

For example, Abrams mentioned a 2007 Journal of General Internal Medicine study which concluded that doctors who were aware of a tendency to under-treat racial minorities were more likely to correct their behavior. Abrams noted that because judges, like doctors, are fairly educated, they may be able to employ a similar self-check.

Abrams also believes the study highlights the importance of sentencing guidelines, which are in effect in many states throughout the country. According to Abrams, the presence of sentencing guidelines may lead to less variability in the sentence lengths administered by judges.

Abrams’ research is the first to prove a definitive positive correlation between race and criminal sentencing.

“Most people already acknowledge or know [that race plays a role in criminal sentencing],” said third-year Law School student Dupe Adegoke, who is also a member of the executive board of the Black Law Students Association. “The difference is that now it has been physically proven” and that there is a greater chance of judges acknowledging and changing their behavior, she added.

College sophomore Meron Zeru, political co-chair of the black student group UMOJA, agreed.

“It’s one of those things that you already know is true, though it’s nice to have a study that reaffirms it,” she said.

Zeru added, “[This study] is important because I think it’ll be discussed a lot within the black community at Penn. Even if it’s not a formal discussion, it’ll be spurring people to talk about what can be done.”

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