Harvard Law study finds stark racial disparities in criminal court sentencing in Massachusetts
September 10, 2020
Harvard Law School researchers published a sweeping study Wednesday that confirmed what many people of color and criminal justice reform advocates have been saying for years: Black and Latino people make up a disproportionately high percentage of criminal cases in Massachusetts and, when convicted, are given longer sentences than their white counterparts...According to the study, which reviewed criminal cases that passed through Massachusetts courts between 2014 and 2016, Black people account for 6.5 percent of the state’s population, but 17.1 percent of criminal court cases; Latinos are 8.7 percent of the Massachusetts population, but accounted for 18.3 percent of the cases. White people, who make up 74 percent of the Massachusetts population, accounted for 58.7 percent of criminal court cases. Black people are also imprisoned at a rate 7.9 times that of white people and Latinos at 4.9 times than white people. Researchers considered factors other than race that may have contributed to the longer sentences received by people of color, including the defendants' criminal history and demographics, initial charge severity, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics. “Even after accounting for these characteristics, Black and Latinx people are still sentenced to 31 and 25 days longer than their similarly situated White counterparts, suggesting that racial disparities in sentence length cannot solely be explained by the contextual factors that we consider and permeate the entire criminal justice process,” researchers wrote...The study took four years to complete, and turned out to be a laborious undertaking. Researchers often encountered missing data, difficult-to-compile paper records and PDF files, public safety agencies that did not respond to their records requests, and the limitations of the state’s antiquated record-keeping system. In all, It took painstaking work to fill in gaps, said Brook Hopkins, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School. “We were able to provide what I think is a good analysis, but that was hard. And it shows how the administrative criminal justice data is not collected in a way that makes this kind of analysis easy to do," Hopkins said.
Researchers find racial disparities across court system
September 10, 2020
Black and Latino defendants in Massachusetts are more likely than white defendants to be locked up for drug and weapons offenses and get longer sentences than white people sent to prison for similar crimes, researchers at Harvard Law School said in a report released Wednesday. In a yearslong study sought by the chief justice of Massachusetts’ highest court, Harvard researchers found significant racial disparities in the handling of weapons and drug cases, crimes they noted “carry longstanding racialized stigmas.” The disparities remain even “after controlling for charge severity and additional factors,” according to the report from the law school’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. The researchers found that racial disparities in the length of sentences are driven largely by the fact that that Black and Latino defendants tend to face more serious initial charges than white defendants. That puts Black and Latino defendants at risk of harsher punishments and can influence their decisions in plea negotiations, they wrote. “The penalty in incarceration length is largest for drug and weapons charges, offenses that carry longstanding racialized stigmas. We believe that this evidence is consistent with racially disparate initial charging practices leading to weaker initial positions in the plea bargaining process for Black defendants, which then translate into longer incarceration sentences for similar offenses,” the researchers wrote. The report comes amid a racial reckoning across the U.S. sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this year. “At this time of national reckoning about race, we hope this report will inspire Massachusetts to confront the racial disparities that permeate our criminal system,” Brook Hopkins, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program, said in an emailed statement.