A new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission says black men are, on average, given longer prison sentences than white men. The report says sentences for black males were 19.5 percent longer than those for white males found guilty of similar crimes between December 2007 and September 2011.
But assistant law professor Lahny Rose Silva at IU’s McKinney School of Law says there is no way to know whether this is due to racial bias on the part of judges.
“How do you prove racial bias without an individual coming out and blatantly saying ‘I‘m using race as a factor in sentencing?” Silva says. “You just don‘t do it.”
She says black men have largely received longer sentences than white men throughout the nation‘s history and that the new report shows nothing out of the ordinary from previous sentencing reports.
The Sentencing Commission report shows that the racial divide in sentencing has widened since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that struck down a 1984 law requiring judges to impose sentences within certain sentencing guidelines.
The report says that in the two years after the ruling, sentences for blacks on average were 15.2 percent longer than those for whites. But Silva says that, even though the guidelines are not mandatory, they are still generally used by most judges, especially federal judges. She says the disparity in sentencing can more likely be linked to heavier policing in urban areas and the more frequent prosecution of African-American men.