Do African-American Women Receive Harsher Sentencing in the Criminal Justice System for Crimes? Thesis

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Racial Bias in Sentencing

Do African-American Women Receive Harsher Sentencing in the Criminal Justice System for Crimes than Caucasian Women?

A ic/Research Question

The proposed research will explore racial bias in the criminal justice system. It will explore consist of a paired analysis of sentencing practices between Caucasian women and African-American women for similar crimes. It will explore the research question: do African-American women receive harsher sentencing in the criminal justice system for crimes than Caucasian women?

The United States prides itself on the maintenance of a fair and equitable justice system. Formal laws and policies are in place to make certain that one group or another does not receive partial treatment due to factors such as sex, race, gender, or religion. The justice system is supposed to work on the principle that everyone will receive a similar treatment for similar crimes, regardless of their gender or race. It would be an ethical violation for a judge or jury to award a punishment, be it more or less severe, based on a factor that was not directly related to the crime committed.

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This is the ideal justice system that exists in the annals of law journals, policies and procedures. However, policies and procedures can only control an individual to a certain extent. Judges, juries, prosecutors, and public defenders are people, just like any one else. As such, they can allow their own feelings to contaminate their decisions. They know that this is wrong, but many do not recognize these qualities in themselves. They do not see the racism in their decisions. However, more than two hundred years of racial prejudice and social teaching cannot be erased with a pen stroke. Racial prejudice no longer exists in the policies of the criminal justice system, but in practice, it is alive and well.

TOPIC: Thesis on Do African-American Women Receive Harsher Sentencing in the Criminal Justice System for Crimes? Assignment

The question of racial bias in the criminal justice system has been a topic of great concern. Accusations that the court system treats people differently according to the color of their skin. The focus of past research has highlighted gender bias in the sentencing of males. However, little attention has been paid to addressing whether the same applies to women in the criminal justice system as well. This research will explore sentencing in the criminal justice system for women of different racial backgrounds.

Independent and Dependent Variables

For this study, the independent variable will consist of the crime that was committed and the sentence achieved. This study will only examine misdemeanor crime. Felonies and capital crimes are complex and often have many mitigating circumstances that could affect the outcome of the study. Misdemeanors are often less complex, with fewer mitigating circumstances, therefore would be expected to be likely to have more consistent sentencing practices. The crimes that will be examined will be limited to: drug possession, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, harassment, menacing, theft, trespass, and domestic violence. The researcher has no control of the crime committed, nor the sentence that was awarded for the crime. Therefore the crime and punishment will serve as the independent variable.

The purpose of this study is to explore the connection between race and the severity of the sentence that was awarded. The race of the women will serve as the dependent variable. This will be the key point of difference between the two groups of women included in this study. One of the key difficulties will be the elimination of confounding variables. Many of these variables will be considered to be consequential. For instance, the specifics of the case, such as provocation and circumstance will not be considered. Only the crime for which the person was convicted, the punishment received, and the race of the subject will be considered in determining the affect of the dependent variable on the independent variable.


An exploration of the affects of race on the sentencing within the criminal justice system is a concern for the fair and equitable application of the law. This research will support the hypothesis that sentencing practice affords stiffer sentences for African-American Women than for Caucasian women that have committed similar crimes.

Review of Literature and Theoretical Perspective

The topic of racial bias in the court system is abundant. Studies regarding racial bias typically use a cohort of male subjects. Only a handful of studies involve female subjects. Therefore, it is not known if the same biases exist in this population that exists in the male population. The following will examine existing academic literature regarding racial bias in the court system.

There are many sources of information that exist on racial bias. However, not all of them are considered to be credible. There are a number of sources, including media sources that present a slanted opinion, rather than an empirically supported argument. Many legal rights organizations have published information in which academic or government sources were cited. However, this information is also considered biased for the purposes of this study, as it is feared that these organizations may have excluded information that did not support their position. Only information from academic sources, or government agencies will be considered for the literature review and development of the theoretical underpinnings of this study.

Racial Bias and Defendant Treatment

There are a number of studies that support the existence of racial bias in the criminal justice system. For instance, a meta-analysis found that a small, but still significant amount of racial bias is present in decision making across a majority of the studies examined (Mitchell, Haw, and Pfeifer et al., 2005). Race has been demonstrated to have an impact on the penalty phase of capital murder trials. In a recent study, it was found that simplifying instructions to the jury resulted in better comprehension of the sentencing instructions when the body of jurors was of mixed race (Shaked-Schrorer, Constanzo, & Marcus-Newhall, 2008). In a study that examined the effect of playing the "race card" it was found that when claims of racial prejudice were used as a defense, those claims resulted in a reduced perception of guilt (Hart & Lopez, 2007). These studies indicate that race does have an effect on the perceptions of jurors and that it does play a role in the sentencing and assumed guilt or innocence of the defendant.

Findings regarding racial bias in the court system are conflicting. A number of the studies that provided contradictory evidence were found to be based on old data, used capital offenses, and lack improper controls and procedures (Unnever, Frazier, & Henretta, 2005). Significant racial differences were found, most of which originated in the early stages of the sentencing process (Unnever, Frazier, & Henretta, 2005).

The demographics of the constituency in which a judge practices has an impact on the way in which judges apply sentences. This effect was found to be especially emphasized when the judge was elected as opposed to appointed (Hernandez-Julian & Tomic, 2006). Blacks were found to be more likely to be incarcerated and for longer times than whites. However, this effect was found to diminish in communities where the number of blacks rose in comparison to white populations (Hernandez-Julian & Tomic, 2006). This study plays a significant role in understanding how politics plays into the sentencing equation.

Diversity in the Judicial System

One of the key criticism of the justice system and the biases that are claimed to exist is the overwhelming majority of Caucasian judges in the system. Perhaps the question is not the overwhelming majority of white judges, but rather the lack of ethnic judges. It has been suggested that racial bias can be reduced by making certain that a sufficient number of black judges are represented in the system. A number of studies focus on the measures that states are taking to help make certain that the benches are represented by a racially diverse set of qualified representatives. Diversity is now taken into consideration for appointed judges, but it does not override other qualifications (Torres-Spelliscy, Chase & Greenman, 2008).

Several committees and publications have been developed to help serve as guidance in the selection of a diverse pool of judges on many levels (National Association for Legal Career Professionals, 2006; Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 2005). Despite the existence of bias and improper procedures that exist in studies regarding racial bias in sentencing practices, a significant amount of credible evidence exists that suggests racial bias in the criminal justice system is real.

Conflicting evidence does exist, or evidence that is considered marginal at best, but despite the existence of these studies, the amount of credible evidence in favor of the existence of racial bias is overwhelming. However, a gap in the literature was found in the methods used to conduct the studies. Use of court evidence was the primary means of conducting the study. This method failed to eliminate many sources of bias that may have affected the results.

The second gap found was in the existence of studies that used females as subjects. Study of racial bias in the court system was dominated… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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