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Sentencing in the Federal Courts: Does Race Matter? The Transition to Sentencing Guidelines, 1986-90

NCJ Number
Date Published
December 1993
This study examines racial and ethnic disparities in sentences imposed on Federal offenders before and after implementation of the sentencing guidelines authorized by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and the mandatory minimum imprisonment provisions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

Patterns in sentences for whites, blacks, and Hispanics were analyzed by controlling for explanatory variables that may correlate with race or ethnicity and by simulating the sentences that would have been imposed under alternative sentencing schemes. The study found that during 1986-88, before full implementation of Federal sentencing guidelines, white, black, and Hispanic offenders received similar sentences, on average, in Federal district courts. Among Federal offenders sentenced under guidelines from January 20, 1989 to June 30, 1990, there were substantial aggregate differences in sentences imposed on white, black, and Hispanic offenders. Nearly all of the aggregate differences among sentences for whites, blacks, and Hispanics during this period can be attributed to characteristics of offenses and offenders that current law and sentencing guidelines establish as legitimate considerations in sentencing decisions. Some characteristics of offenses or offenders that correlate with race or ethnicity strongly influence sentences under current Federal law and sentencing guidelines. The main reason that blacks' sentences were longer than whites' from January 1989 to June 1990 was that 83 percent of all Federal offenders convicted of trafficking in crack cocaine in guideline cases were black, and the average sentence imposed for crack trafficking was twice as long as for trafficking in powdered cocaine. A 53-item bibliography

Date Published: December 1, 1993