Does Racial Bias Explain the Black-White Sentencing Gap across U.S. Courts? by Michael T. Light and Karl Vachuska (2024)

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Social Problems


It is widely speculated that prejudicial attitudes and implicit biases are fundamental to understanding racial disparities in criminal punishment. Yet surprisingly little research links measures of racial bias to data on criminal court decision-making. This article fills this gap by combining multiple aggregate measures of implicit and explicit racial bias with data from U.S. federal courts to examine whether racial disparities in sentencing are associated with prejudicial attitudes within the surrounding court context. We find no evidence that racial biases, whether implicit or explicit, significantly influence racial sentencing disparities across U.S. district courts. Nor do we find evidence that racial biases yield greater sentencing disparities in supplementary analyses using county-level court data. We do, however, find suggestive evidence that the prosecutorial application of mandatory minimums is sensitive to the level of racial bias within a court’s jurisdiction. Specifically, we find that Black defendants are disproportionately charged in districts with greater explicit racial animus.