Report: No racial bias in state prison sentences

Leo Strine

Leo Strine

DOVER — African-Americans make up a disproportionate share of the state’s prison population, but a new report states the disparity is due not to bias in the courts but to underlying factors like prior criminal history.

African-Americans constitute about a fifth of the state’s population but more than half of the prisoners in Delaware correctional centers, a gap that has raised eyebrows among many state officials and activists. In 2014, Chief Justice Leo Strine spearheaded the creation of the Access to Justice Commission, which commissioned a report analyzing the disparity.

The conclusions say the imbalance can be traced back to previous arrests, severity of criminal charges and geographical location. African-Americans are more likely than whites to have been arrested before and to face more serious charges, according to data from 2012 to 2014.

While the study determined “there were significant disparities in incarceration sentences and sentence lengths,” the differences “decreased substantially to levels that were practically small after controlling for current charge and case characteristics, contextual information related to county location, detention between arrest and disposition, and criminal history,” the report says.

Individuals who are unable to make bail and are detained prior to trial are more likely to serve prison time, according to the study.

That finding could be seized upon by activists and lawmakers as evidence for eliminating bail for low-level crimes.

Chief Justice Strine has advocated ending bail for all amounts of less than $100,000, essentially allowing offenders of misdemeanors and some felonies to stay free before trial.

John MacDonald

John MacDonald

“If you’re setting a bail lower than $100,000 you’re basically making a statement that you believe if that person can post that kind of money they can be fit in the community,” he said in March.

“So if you’re setting that, and the only reason the person’s not in the community is they can’t pay that, but it’s even more shocking. … It feels safe to say that a majority of the bail is actually less than $10,000. A majority of the bail may be less than $5,000. Many of these people, if they had $5,000, would not have committed a crime.”

Study co-author John MacDonald, a University of Pennsylvania criminology professor, said similar research has indicated pre-trial detainees are less likely to be found not guilty, although he noted it is “a little bit ambiguous” as to why.

The study, along with public testimony collected last year, will be used by the Access to Justice Commission to provide recommendations to the courts and the General Assembly.

Proposed changes could include eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences and bail.

“This is an important study and one that will be key to the Fairness Committee’s work evaluating possible reforms to the Delaware criminal justice system.

“A study like this ensures that we are working from provable, real-world facts, not anecdote or speculation,” Bartholomew J. Dalton, co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission’s Fairness Committee, said in a statement.

Nationally, African-Americans are several times more likely than whites to receive prison sentences, meaning Delaware is far from unique in the disparity.

Some studies have shown much of the gap results from socioeconomic status — proportionally, more African-Americans live in poverty than whites, and income and education, or lack thereof, is correlated with criminal behavior.

In Delaware, a large percentage of arrests occur in areas with heavy concentration of African-Americans and poverty, like Wilmington, Dover and Seaford.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 23,300 people in Delaware were under supervision, 7,000 of whom were imprisoned, in 2014. The agency said the state had an incarceration rate of about 3.2 percent, higher than 41 states.

The study says Delaware’s prison population peaked at 7,257 in 2007, a fivefold increase over 30 years prior.

A majority of offenders in four of the five sentencing levels are white. However, at the highest level, incarceration, about 51 percent of people are black, while 45 percent are white.

“On average, whites are more likely to be arrested for property and other offenses while African-Americans are more likely to be arrested for violent or drug offenses,” the report says.

African-Americans are about 64 percent more likely to have a felony conviction than whites.

The findings indicate African-Americans are not only more likely to receive a sentence than whites, they tend to be given a longer sentence, with a difference of 125 days.

However, once adjusted for criminal history, severity of the offenses and other factors, the difference in sentence length is not statistically significant.

The report notes it does not examine if bias is present in policing and “makes no judgment on whether the current level of incarceration is fair or justified.”

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