Racial bias observed in sentencing decisions in US: Study

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London, Feb 29 (IANS) Petty criminals who are black are more likely to be jailed than their white counterparts and blacks are also being awarded longer sentences for crimes which are low in intensity, claims a study done by a team of researchers from University of Sheffield in Britain.

The study explored 17,000 decisions from South Carolina in the US where there are no sentencing guidelines and decision makers have greater discretion when sentencing offenders.

The research highlights the inequalities in incarceration rates and sentence lengths for minority offenders as well as raises awareness of the potential bias in sentencing decisions, the study noted.

The results showed that black people with lower levels of criminal history were more likely than white people to be jailed. Also, the likelihood of incarceration increased by as much as 43 percent for those with no past criminal history.

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The probability of imprisonment increased by as much as 10 percent for those with moderate criminal history. But, when offenders had a substantial criminal record, this had a constraining effect that neutralised the impact of race, the researchers noted.

“Whether intentional or not, the fact that race appears to influence incarceration and criminal sentencing decisions is troubling. It is particularly concerning that this pattern of disparity appears to be affecting African American offenders with limited criminal histories or for less severe crimes,” said Todd Hartman, lead researcher from University of Sheffield.

Further, black offenders with crimes of lower intensity received slightly longer sentences than white offenders. But blacks with high severity offence received shorter average sentences than white offenders, the researchers explained.

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The study, published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, tested the “liberation hypothesis”, which concerns how much flexibility judges have when sentencing, depending on the relevant case facts.

The theory stipulates that when the case facts are unambiguous and the evidence clearly favours one side – for example, for the most serious crimes and repeat criminal offenders – judges will have little choice but to impose severe punishment regardless of extra-legal factors like race.

However, in more ambiguous contexts, judges are “liberated” from the constraints of extreme criminality.

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