Study: Criminal Sentencing Racial Disparities Have Declined

Aug 13, 2019

An Ohio State University analysis of state, county and federal data suggests racial disparities in criminal sentencing have declined. 


Research has found that on average, African American defendants receive longer criminal sentences than white defendants. 

Ohio State professor Ryan King wanted to know how that disparity has changed over the last few decades. King conducted the analysis with Michael Light, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"What we find is that analyzing three data sets - one from Minnesota, the other from federal sentencing and the other from a national survey of state courts - that all three indicate some movement towards less disparity between blacks and whites in criminal sentencing," King says. 

The analysis found the gap in sentence length for African Americans and whites in federal courts decreased by 80% between 1996-2016.

African Americans were sentenced to about 27 more months in prison than whites in 1992. In 1996, the difference expanded to 42 months. But by 2016, the gap between African American and white defendants had dropped to just 8 months.

In 1996, African American defendants were also 14% more likely to receive a prison sentence than white defendants. In the mid-2000s, that gap dropped to 7%.

King attributes some of the federal change to the "Fair Sentencing Act" of 2010, Barack Obama's presidency, and the appointment of Eric Holder, the first black attorney general. 

He says during 2009 and 2010, there was a sustained focus on racial disparities in imprisonment.