It wasn’t Black-on-Black crime. Violent video games and rap songs had nothing to do with it; nor did poverty, education, two-parent homes or the international “bootstraps” shortage. When a judge tasked researchers with explaining why Massachusetts’ Black and Latinx incarceration was so high, a four-year study came up with one conclusion.
It was always racism.
According to 2016 data from the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, 655 of every 100,000 Black people in Massachusetts are in prison. Meanwhile, the state locks up 82 of its white citizens for every 100,000 who reside in the state. While an eight-to-one racial disparity might seem like a lot for one criminal justice system, nationwide, African Americans are imprisoned at almost six times the rate of white people. So, in 2016, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants asked Harvard researchers to “take a hard look at how we can better fulfill our promise to provide equal justice for every litigant.”
After gathering the raw numbers from nearly every government agency in the state’s criminal justice system, examining the data, and researching the disparate outcomes, Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program found that Black incarcerees received more severe charges, harsher sentences and less favorable outcomes than their white counterparts. They looked at more than a million cases, from the initial charges through the conviction and sentencing, and discovered disparities that could not be explained by logic or reason.
“White people make up roughly 74% of the Massachusetts population while accounting for 58.7% of cases in our data,” the study explained. “Meanwhile, Black people make up just 6.5% of the Massachusetts population and account for 17.1% of cases.”
Of course, that could only mean that Black people commit much more crime, right?
OK, then maybe Black people commit worse crimes.
That wasn’t it.
What they found is the criminal justice system is unequal on every level. Cops in the state are more likely to stop Black drivers. Police are more likely to search or investigate Black residents. Law enforcement agents charge Black suspects with infractions that carry worse penalties. Prosecutors are less likely to offer Black suspects plea bargains or pre-trial intervention. Judges sentence Black defendants to longer terms in prison. And get this: The average white felon in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections has committed a more severe crime than the average Black inmate.
The study, “Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System” (pdf) unearthed a number of factors that contribute to these significant disparities, including:
- It’s not that Black people are criminals: It’s that the cops think Black people are criminals: For instance, despite making up only 24 percent of Boston’s population, Black people made up 63 percent of the civilians who were interrogated, stopped, frisked or searched by the BPD between 2007 and 2010. According to the researchers, this suggests “that the disparity in searches was more consistent with racial bias than with differences in criminal conduct.”
- Black suspects don’t get bail: The average bail is slightly higher in cases involving Black defendants. Furthermore, more Black and Latinx defendants are detained without bail as compared to white defendants.
- Black people are charged with higher offenses: But curiously, when they get to court, Black defendants are convicted of charges roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts despite facing more serious initial charges.
- There are actually two separate systems: The study notes that prosecutors are more likely to exercise their discretion to send Black and Latinx people “to Superior Court where the available sentences are longer.”
- And separate sentences: If you’re Black and charged with crimes carrying a mandatory minimum, you are substantially more likely to be incarcerated and receive a longer sentence.
- Especially if they find drugs or guns on you: Black and Latinx people charged with drug offenses and weapons offenses are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer incarceration sentences than white people charged with similar offenses
- Sentencing length: The average Black person’s sentence is 168 days longer than a sentence for a white person. Even when the researchers controlled for criminal history, jurisdiction, and neighborhood, they concluded: “[R]acial disparities in sentence length cannot solely be explained by the contextual factors that we consider and permeate the entire criminal justice process.”
The researchers even looked at poverty rates, the family structures of convicted felons and the neighborhoods they lived in. They eventually decided that the only reasonable explanation that explained the disparities was racism.
One of the more interesting parts of the report juxtaposed people who possessed illegal firearms with people arrested for operating a vehicle under the influence (OUI). They reasoned that both acts are potentially dangerous but statistics show that driving under the influence actually causes much more harm to the public than simply carrying an unlicensed firearm. But, because white people make up 82 percent of people who are convicted of OUI, the state considers operating under the influence as a “public health problem,” so the charge is often resolved without a felony conviction. In fact, 77 percent of the people who don’t end up with a felony conviction after admitting that they operated a vehicle under the influence are white.
However, despite Black defendants making up 16.4 percent of firearm cases in 2012, 46 percent of the people convicted of a firearm offense was Black. And 70.3 percent of the time, the Black person’s only offense was carrying a firearm without a license.
The researchers also couldn’t figure out why Black people are always initially charged with more serious crimes than white people. The easiest explanation was that Black suspects commit worse crimes than white people, but the data disproved that assumption. Then, they hypothesized that prosecutors may be overzealous when it came to convicting violent cases but that proved not to be the case. When all was said and done, Black people were arrested more often, had higher bail and received harsher sentences. But when they examined convictions, they discovered that Black people were surprisingly less likely to be convicted than white people. Essentially, according to the researchers, a white person has to commit an egregious offense to wind up behind bars while all a Black person has to do is...well, be a Black person.
The researchers noted that they could not “conclusively isolate the impact of unconscious bias, prejudice, and racism in generating the disparities” precisely because there was so much of it. They could only conclude that the criminal justice process was a Rube Goldberg machine that produces “racially disparate initial charging practices leading to weaker initial positions in the plea bargaining process for Black defendants, which then translate into longer incarceration sentences for similar offenses.”
I didn’t go to Harvard but when I Googled the word “systemic” it said:
“relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part.”
And when I Googled the word “racism,” it said:
“prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”
And it didn’t even take four years.