Race and Sentencing Disparity

Cassia Spohn

Foundation Professor of Criminology and
Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Reforming Criminal Justice Vol. 2

Although the overt and widespread racism that characterized the operation of the criminal justice system during the early part of the 20th century has largely been eliminated, racial disparities in sentencing and punishment persist. Research conducted during the past four decades concludes that the continuing—some would say, worsening—racial disparity in incarceration rates and use of the death penalty can be attributed to the policies pursued during the war on drugs and to criminal justice officials’ use of race-linked stereotypes of culpability and dangerousness. Remedying the situation and ensuring that imprisonment will no longer be a normal part of the life course for young black and Hispanic men will require reducing the size of the prison population through decarceration, reforming the sentencing process so that a larger proportion of offenders convicted of nonserious crimes are given an alternative to incarceration, and abolishing or severely restricting use of the death penalty.