For people who haven’t kept up with the news recently, there has been a significant media focus on the disparities in the ways that different races are treated in the criminal justice system. This difference isn’t limited to treatment by police; it also extends to the sentences that courts hand down to people convicted of various crimes.
This disparate treatment is not simply anecdotal. A recent study revealed that whites and African Americans tend to receive very different sentences for similar crimes.
A study conducted in Florida found that African-American defendants are typically given longer jail and prison sentences than whites. For example, African Americans who were convicted of robbery were given prison sentences that were nearly three times as long as whites who were convicted of the same crimes under similar circumstances. While some people might argue that the circumstances of these crimes cannot possibly be the same every time, this is a common crime with a very large sample size. In the long run, the sentences should even out. The fact that they don’t is evidence of bias.
The study didn’t just stop at armed robbery but instead looked at the justice system in the state of Florida as a whole. The study found that judges tend to ignore many of the sentencing guidelines and sentenced African Americans to longer prison terms than their white counterparts in 60 percent of felony cases and close to 70 percent in serious first-degree crimes. This is particularly harsh when it comes to drug crimes where the police even target neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American. People caught up in these operations receive jail sentences that are often twice as long as those given to whites.
There are, unquestionably, systemic issues that need to be addressed in our criminal justice system. But studies like this also speak to the importance of having an experienced defense attorney at all stages of the justice process. An attorney should be present to protect your rights as a defendant as the court case plays out. You have a constitutional right to an attorney who understands the law and knows how to fight for your best interests.