CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rehavi & Starr on Racial Disparities in Charging and Sentencing

Starr sonjaM. Marit Rehavi and Sonja B. Starr (pictured) (University of British Columbia and University of Michigan Law School) have posted Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and Its Sentencing Consequences on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This paper assesses the extent to which the large disparities in sentencing outcomes between black and white defendants can be explained by disparities in prosecutors' initial choice of charges, a critical stage overlooked by existing studies of sentencing disparities. To analyze charging, we pair newly constructed measures of charge severity with a newly linked dataset that traces federal cases from the arrest through sentencing.

We find that black arrestees, especially black males, face significantly more severe charges conditional on arrest offense and other observed characteristics. The disparities in the use of charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences are particularly striking. These disparities appear to be major drivers of sentencing disparity. Black males face significantly longer sentences than white males do, on average and at almost every decile of the sentence-length distribution, even after conditioning on arrest offense, criminal history, district, and age. However, the addition of controls for initial charges renders most of these disparities insignificant. Indeed, the otherwise-unexplained racial disparities at the mean and at most of the deciles can be almost entirely explained by disparities in a single prosecutorial decision: whether to file a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence.

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