September 2020

Harvard Racial Disparity Study
In 2016, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, concerned about racial disparity in incarceration rates, asked Harvard University researchers to determine the cause of the disparity. Massachusetts had about an 8:1 disparity in the rates of Black, Latinx, and White prisoners. For example, for every 100,000 Whites in Massachusetts, 82 were incarcerated. For every 100,000 Blacks in Massachusetts, 655 were incarcerated. The national rate is lower, with about a 6:1 difference.

The Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program researchers, reviewing over one million cases, found while Whites are about 74% of the state’s population, Blacks are about 6.5% of the population, and Latinx residents are about 8.7% of the population. Whites were 58.7% of the prison population, Blacks were 17.1% of those incarcerated, and Latinx persons were 18.3% of the incarcerated. The researchers did not find that Blacks committed more crimes or that they were responsible for more serious crimes; in fact, the average White in prison committed a more serious offense than the average Black in prison. The researchers also found that Latinx and Black defendants were less likely to obtain the advantage of pretrial probation arrangements than were Whites, and they were more likely to receive longer incarceration sentences than were Whites when sentenced. For example, Blacks on average received sentences 168 days longer than Whites, and Latinx defendants received on average sentences 148 days longer than did White defendants. Disparities in sentences remained even after the researchers accounted for a “defendant’s criminal history and demographics, initial charge severity, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics. The regression analysis indicates that even after accounting for these characteristics, Black and Latinx people are still sentenced to 31 and 25 days longer than their similarly situated White counterparts.”
The researchers found that the primary factor – accounting for 70% – leading to disparate sentencing was “racial and ethnic differences in the type and severity of initial charge.” Also, they found that prosecutors were more likely to bring charges against Black and Latinx defendants that sent them to the Superior Court – where greater sentences are likely – instead of District Court. The researchers further noted that their “results highlight the central role that initial charging decisions play in sentencing. It appears that the adjudication and plea bargaining processes attenuate disparities in charge severity, but initial differences continue to influence sentencing even if defendants of color are not convicted of the more serious offenses with which they are initially charged.”

Sources: Michael Harriot, “A Judge Asked Harvard to Find Out Why So Many Black People Were In Prison. They Could Only Find 1 Answer: Systemic Racism,” the, September 10, 2020:
Harvard Law School study:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor