Study: Some judges, more than others, consider race when sentencing

Is justice blind?

Probably not many Americans truly believe that, given the variances in sentencing outcomes that are readily seen across the nation, including in Georgia, for defendants who seem similarly placed and have been convicted of similar crimes.

A new study just released by university professors that looks at felony cases prosecuted in Cook County, Illinois, goes a decided step toward putting that belief firmly to bed with its conclusion that some judges seem particularly predisposed toward putting certain defendants behind bars.

“Race matters in the courtroom,” say study authors, comprised of a team of professors from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago and Harvard University. They conclude following their study of incarceration rates and sentence lengths imposed by Cook County judges on both black and white defendants that, for members of the former group, which judge is presiding over a case is the overriding factor in a sentencing determination.

In other words: Although black defendants on average are more likely to be sentenced to a prison term than are white defendants, the racial gap is even more evident when certain judges are in charge of a courtroom.

The bottom line: Some judges, more often than others, seemingly base sentencing at least in part on a defendant’s race and nothing more.

“No judge is likely to acknowledge, on his or her own, ‘Well, of course, I take race into account,'” say study authors, who add it is likely that most judge do not do so, at least in an explicit manner.

And thus it is important to educate them, say the researchers.

“I think making judges aware of it could potentially help going forward,” notes University of Pennsylvania law professor and researcher David Abrams.

Source: ABA Journal, “Race matters in sentencing, study suggests,” Debra Cassens Weiss, Aug. 23, 2012

  • For information on our firm’s practice, which includes strong criminal defense representation and experience in plea bargaining and sentencing mitigation, please visit our Atlanta, Georgia, Criminal Defense page.