Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and Its Sentencing Consequences
61 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2012 Last revised: 2 Jun 2012
Date Written: May 7, 2012
Using rich data linking federal cases from arrest through sentencing, we assess the contribution of prosecutors' initial charging decisions to large observed black-white disparities in sentence length. Pre-charge characteristics, including arrest offense and criminal history, can explain about 80% of these disparities, but substantial gaps remain across the distribution. On average, blacks receive almost 10% longer sentences than comparable whites arrested for the same crimes. At least half this gap can be explained by initial charging choices, particularly the filing of charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors are, ceteris paribus, almost twice as likely to file such charges against blacks.
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