Racial Disparities in Sentencing: Can Sentencing Reforms Reduce Discrimination in Punishment?
29 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2013
Date Written: 1993
Of the many functions of punishment in a democratic society, consider two extremes: punishment as a means of controlling crime, and punishment as a means of just deserts. The former is concerned with altering the behavior of individual criminals so as to achieve the desired social end of lower levels of criminal activity. As such, punishment as a means of controlling crime serves as what might be regarded in economic terminology as the "efficiency" goal of punishment. The latter is concerned with achieving a fair or equitable match between illegal acts and penalties, and thus can be termed an "equity" or "fairness" goal of punishment.
Racial disparities in punishment are a by-product of the operation of a criminal justice system that labors under these conflicting objectives in sentencing and imprisonment. On one hand, there is an attempt to equate the punishment to the crime, a process that will result in racially disparate punishments if, for historical reasons, the crimes that are perpetuated by some groups are considered more heinous than those perpetuated by other groups. Or stated differently, if blacks happen to commit in disproportionate numbers those crimes that are more likely to be punished by imprisonment, they will be found in disproportionate numbers among those imprisoned. Thus, for example, black street-criminals who rob the local convenience store may receive prison sentences while white professionals who embezzle from their corporations receive sentences of probation, if legislatures perceive the former crime as a greater threat to society than the latter. Because racial disparities are inherent in the historical development of sanctions, sentencing guidelines and other reforms which evaluate only the characteristics of the crime in the determination of the punishment to accompany the crime will not necessarily eliminate ex post racial disparities. The objective, nonetheless, is to achieve an element of fairness or equity in punishment whereby people who commit identical crimes should receive identical punishments.
Keywords: racial disparities, reform, discrimination in punishment
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation