I won’t lie—I love studies.
You can argue with someone about an issue for days, but that person will always disagree. People can twist statistics to fit any narrative. When debating race, some skeptics (usually white people, racists and black men with no facial hair) are willing to easily dismiss your assertions if you don’t have peer-reviewed, scientific proof. Pulling out data from a study during a debate about racial injustice is like licking the big joker and sticking it to your forehead.
Not only are there disparities in arrests, prosecution, sentencing and incarceration between blacks and whites, but a new study has revealed that even when defendants are willing to plead guilty to a crime, prosecutors will still offer black defendants much harsher plea deals than their white counterparts.
Carlos Berdejó, a researcher at Loyola University, recently completed a study entitled “Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea Bargaining” (pdf), which highlights the racial disparities in the criminal-justice system by examining the differences in the way prosecutors handle misdemeanor crimes.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the felonies that often saddle black and brown people with criminal records, fines and jail sentences. Law-enforcement officers and prosecutors charge defendants with misdemeanor crimes more often, and these charges receive less focus because of a number of factors, including the severity of the alleged offense, the salaciousness of the details and the lack of public outcry.
Berdejó looked at misdemeanor crimes in Wisconsin. He focused on the state because of the wealth of detailed information that state includes in its data, including the race, gender, age and criminal history of the defendant. Wisconsin also has a plea bargaining process that is not guided by mandatory maximums or minimums, which means that the sentences and punishment are almost always left up to the discretion of prosecutors and judges.
He examined 30,807 cases over a seven-year period and found a number of disturbing facts, in almost every phase of the criminal-justice system. The study determined biases in arrests, sentencing and the types of plea deals that were offered, and it found several, including these:
- White people facing misdemeanor charges were more than 74 percent more likely than black people to have all charges carrying potential prison time dropped, dismissed or reduced.
- White people with no criminal history were more than 25 percent more likely to have charges reduced than black people who also had no criminal history.
- Black defendants were 19.38 percentage points more likely than white defendants to be incarcerated.
- Black offenders, on average, received sentences 1.23 months longer than those given to whites.
But it is the plea bargaining process that exposes the differences in the way the justice system criminalizes blacks suspected of committing crimes. The data shows that whites were 74.9 percent more likely to see the magnitude of their misdemeanor crimes lessened, and 25 percent more likely than blacks to have their misdemeanor charges reduced, dropped or amended.
I know what you’re thinking: “But aren’t blacks more crime prone? That’s probably why they get harsher penalties.”
Not according to Berdejó’s research. In the cases where the defendant had no prior convictions, white defendants were 46 percent more likely to have their charges reduced or erased than “the blacks.” The statistics hold true even when researchers controlled for the type of crime, the quality of the attorney and the experience of the prosecutor. In other words, when Berdejó examined every variable that could explain the racism in the criminal-justice system, blacks still received harsher sentences and got worse deals than whites when they pleaded guilty to crimes.
The results of this study are consequential for three reasons:
- Prosecutorial discretion: Wisconsin law allows prosecutors and judges to determine plea bargains and deals. The research shows that when they’re given the latitude, the actors inside the criminal-justice system will always produce racially biased results.
- Economic impact: The fines and penalties associated with these crimes affect entire communities. The inability to pay could land you in jail. It means that black families are more likely to lose a potential earner because black parents are incarcerated more often and longer than whites. Furthermore, convictions for misdemeanors and felonies affect the ability to get financial aid for education, employment opportunities and earning potential.
- The criminalization of African Americans: The study shows that black people are more likely to be arrested for committing the same crimes. Blacks receive longer prison sentences. Blacks get their charges dropped or reduced less often. All of these facts show how blacks are criminalized and viewed as more dangerous, even when the pool with which they are compared consists of white criminals.
I’m sure none of this comes as a surprise to anyone reading this, but the next time some “alt-right”-leaning fart bubble starts explaining how blacks make up so much of the prison population, commit so many crimes or don’t work, or presents some other insidious stereotype that is selectively remembered by your I’m-not-racist-I’m-just-looking-at-the-facts friend, slam this study on the table and remind that person that whiteness is, and will always be, America’s trump card.
Read the entire study here (pdf).