Study portrays culturally biased judicial system

The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Blacks get prison sentences about 10 percent longer than whites for similar federal crimes, according to a computer analysis published yesterday.

Whites convicted in 1992-93 received an average sentence of 33 months, while blacks got 36 months, The Tennessean reported. The computer study examined all 80,000 federal court convictions during the two years, comparing cases where the seriousness of the crime and criminal histories were equal.

The study found the highest black-white sentencing disparity 13 percent in the West. The South had the lowest regional disparity, with 3 percent. Sentences for blacks were 12 percent higher in the Midwest and 10 percent in the Northeast.

Hispanics received sentences comparable to whites. Too few Asians and other minorities were convicted of federal crimes for a statistically valid comparison, the newspaper said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson blamed the disparity on subconscious cultural bias within the justice system. The federal court system has 82 black judges and 1,382 white judges.

''It's the non-dramatic, institutional racism that's the problem,'' Jackson told the paper. ''Cultural bias exists and some people are punished on stereotypes ... so much so, it appears to be natural, it's so standard.''

But Richard Conaboy, chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, said some of the differences may be attributable to factors in sentencing that the study did not take into account, such as a defendant's work record.

The seven-member Sentencing Commission was created a decade ago to equalize federal criminal sentences. It keeps the records analyzed by The Tennessean.

An analyst at the Sentencing Commission, who asked not to be identified, faulted the newspaper's method of comparing categories of crimes. She said the seriousness of the crimes could vary within the categories.

For instance, a bank robber might be in the same category as someone convicted of bank fraud and the judge might consider the fraud to be less serious than the robbery and give a lighter sentence.

But statisticians from Vanderbilt University, the University of North Carolina, Mississippi State and Pennsylvania State universities all agreed with the method.

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