In a yearslong study sought by the chief justice of Massachusetts' highest court, Harvard researchers found significant racial disparities in the handling of weapons and drug cases, crimes they noted “carry longstanding racialized stigmas." The disparities remain even “after controlling for charge severity and additional factors,” according to the report from the law school's Criminal Justice Policy Program.
The researchers found that racial disparities in the length of sentences are driven largely by the fact that that Black and Latino defendants tend to face more serious initial charges than white defendants. That puts Black and Latino defendants at risk of harsher punishments and can influence their decisions in plea negotiations, they wrote.
"The penalty in incarceration length is largest for drug and weapons charges, offenses that carry longstanding racialized stigmas. We believe that this evidence is consistent with 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," the researchers wrote.
The report comes amid a racial reckoning across the U.S. sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this year.
“At this time of national reckoning about race, we hope this report will inspire Massachusetts to confront the racial disparities that permeate our criminal system," Brook Hopkins, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program, said in an emailed statement.
Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, asked the Harvard Law School to conduct the study to explain why the incarceration rate for Black and Latinos is so much higher than it is for white people.
The Massachusetts Sentencing Commission found that Black people in the state were imprisoned at a rate nearly eight times that of white people in 2014, and that Latinos were imprisoned at a rate nearly five times that of white people.
“We need to learn the truth behind this troubling disparity and, once we learn it, we need the courage and the commitment to ‘handle' the truth,” Gants said when he announced the study in 2016.
The researchers said they cannot say for sure whether the differences in the initial charges brought against Black and Latino defendants versus white defendants stem from decisions made by police and prosecutors, as opposed to differences in their criminal conduct.
But while Black and Latino suspects tend to face more serious initial charges than whites, they are convicted of charges “roughly equal in seriousness," which indicates that the “underlying conduct in these cases may be similar across race," the researchers found. In fact, Black defendants sent to state prison are convicted of less serious crimes on average than white defendants even though the Black defendants were initially hit with more severe charges, they said.
“The evidence is most consistent with Black and Latinx defendants receiving more severe initial charges than White defendants for similar conduct," they wrote. And the initial charge is crucial because it “sets the baseline” in plea negotiations, which is how the vast majority of cases are resolved, the report said.