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If You’re Unlucky or Black, Your Prison Sentence Could Be 63 Percent Longer

by Douglas Ankney

A new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission reveals that the length of a defendant’s prison sentence increasingly depends on the whims of the judge. For example, in Philadelphia, some of the judges ordered sentences 63 percent longer than their colleagues for identical crimes. Doug Berman, a sentencing law expert and professor at The Ohio State University Moritz School of Law, said, “Certain judges are the ‘hang ‘em high’ type, and others are the ‘cry me a river type.’”

The growing discrepancies in sentences follow the landmark decision of United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), wherein the Supreme Court struck down laws that required federal district judges to impose sentences within a range of preset guidelines.

The study compared over 140,000 cases from 13 years across 30 U.S. cities. Of the 30 cities studied, 25 saw spreads grow after Booker.
The study raises complicated issues. The fact that a prison sentence could vary by decades on what is basically the flip of a coin is anathema in a justice system that claims it is “blind” and offers “equal protection.” Yet many attorneys and criminal-justice reformers say the former system of preset sentence lengths was profoundly unjust, especially when it required long, draconian sentences.

“I think their discretion is good and important and useful because when judges are pigeonholed that takes their power and humanity away,” said NiaLena Caravasos, a Philadelphia-area defense attorney. Yet some judges appear to be lacking in humanity because there is now much racial disparity in sentencing. White men are far more likely to be sentenced to terms below the guidelines, while black men are sentenced according to the guidelines. 



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