WASHINGTON – The percentage of minority inmates in U.S. prisons has increased sharply since federal sentencing guidelines took effect 17 years ago, with blacks generally receiving harsher punishments than whites, a federal advisory panel has concluded.
The 15-year study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal judges, examines how well the guidelines have brought uniformity to punishments. It found that while sentencing has become “more certain and predictable,” disparities still exist among races and regions.
The findings come as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the guidelines, which advocates say are critical to achieving fairness in punishments.
Before the guidelines were created in 1987, judges had wide discretion in issuing sentences. The guidelines give judges a range of possible punishments for a given crime and make it difficult for judges to go outside those boundaries.
According to the study released Tuesday, the average prison sentence today is about 50 months, twice what it was when lawmakers began calling for a uniform sentencing system in 1984, due mostly to the elimination of parole for offenses such as drug trafficking.
The percentage of whites in prison dropped sharply from nearly 60 percent in 1984 to about 35 percent in 2002, according to the report. It attributed the decrease to a dramatic growth in Hispanics imprisoned on immigration charges – from about 15 percent to 40 percent.
In addition, the gap between sentences for blacks and whites widened. While blacks and whites received an average sentence of slightly more than two years in 1984, blacks now stay in prison for about six years, compared to about four years for whites.
The report attributed the disparity in part to harsher mandatory minimum sentences that Congress imposed for drug-related crimes such as cocaine possession. In 2002, 81 percent of these offenders were black.
The study found harsher punishments generally in the South compared with the Northeast and West. It concluded that legal differences in the individual cases “explain the vast majority of variation among judges and regions.”