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Judge John E. Turner (Ret.)

Report finds that black offenders often get harsher sentencing

Civil rights groups in Washington and around the country have long alleged that African Americans receive disproportionately harsh treatment in the criminal justice system. A report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission on Nov. 14 suggests that these claims have merit. The independent agency, which is part of the judicial branch of the federal government, studied the sentences handed down to black and white men convicted of the same crimes between 2012 and 2016. They found that African American males received sentences that were, on average, 19.1 percent longer.

The Demographic Differences in Sentencing study reveals the impact of the landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Booker. The Booker ruling allows federal judges to impose sentences harsher than those prescribed by USSC sentencing guidelines based on admissions made by defendants or facts proved beyond reasonable doubt in court. However, the ruling also allows federal appeals courts to review and modify sentences.

Other statistics dealing with the treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system are just as alarming. The Sentencing Project reports that black men in the United States are six times more likely to spend time behind bars than white men. The nonprofit advocacy group also says that 10 percent of African American men in their 30s are incarcerated in either jail or prison at any given moment.

Criminal defense attorneys may keep figures like these in mind when negotiating plea agreements on behalf of Hispanic or African American clients. If necessary, they may study police reports closely to ensure that the protections guaranteed to suspects by the U.S. Constitution have been respected.

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