Researchers and activists have long complained about racial disparities in Massachusetts’ criminal justice system. Recently, there has been some progress toward not only recognizing the problems, but also getting to the heart of their causes.
In an attempt to understand the extent of the racial disparities in sentencing and their origins, Harvard law school’s Criminal Justice Policy Program recently investigated and completed an investigation. While it may not be a surprise that the researchers found racial disparities in sentencing, the reasons they found are interesting.
The origins of racial disparities in sentencing
According to the Criminal Justice Policy Program’s report the two types of offenses that resulted in the most racial disparities in sentencing were drug crimes and weapons crimes. Researchers found that while many times Black and Latino defendants were convicted of similar offenses as white defendants, they usually faced more severe initial charges. This put Black and Latino defendants in a tougher position from the start of their cases. They are put in a worse negotiating position since they are initially facing more severe potential penalties. So, while they may end up being convicted of lesser offenses, their jail sentence is still longer than white people convicted of similar crimes.
The report could not draw any conclusions as for who was to blame or why Black and Latino defendants were initially charged with more severe crimes than white people, but it was clear that they were more likely to spend more time in jail than white people. This was true even in cases where they were ultimately convicted of similar or even lesser crimes than white people.
This is a problem that will probably take years for Massachusetts to correct, but understanding where the racial disparities in sentencing stem from is a start. Everyone has equal rights under the law and enforcement of the law should be carried out the same way for everyone. Experienced attorneys understand people’s rights and may be able to help protect them.