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Black Defendants Face Harsher Sentences From GOP-Appointed Judges, Study Finds

As Trump makes judicial appointments at breakneck speed, Harvard research exposes troubling sentencing disparities along racial lines

A study by professors at Harvard University found that Republican-appointed judges give black defendents longer sentences than those appointed by Democrats.

A study by professors at Harvard University found that Republican-appointed judges give black defendents longer sentences than those appointed by Democrats. (Photo: Shawn/Flickr/cc)

In the latest study detailing the criminal justice system's failure to deliver equal justice to Americans of varying races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, judges appointed by Republican presidents were found to give black defendants longer sentences than those appointed by Democrats.

More than 15 years of data on sentences handed out by 1,400 federal judges showed that black defendants are given sentences that are an average of three months longer when a Republican-appointed judge is on the bench, versus a judge nominated by a Democratic president. Female defendants were also served sentences that were two months shorter than those of males who were convicted of similar crimes.

"These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion," wrote Harvard Law School Professors Alma Cohen and Crystal S. Yang. The researchers used data from the Federal Judicial Center, the United States Sentencing Commission, and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The study also found that black judges treated male and female defendants more equally for similar convictions, and that black judges who were appointed by Republicans were slightly less likely to give black defendants harsh sentences.

The study is "an extraordinarily important contribution to our statistical understanding of sentencing decision making in federal courts over the last two decades," Douglas A. Berman, an criminal sentencing expert at Ohio State University, told the New York Times.

The dynamic illustrated in the Harvard study is likely to carry consequences for the justice system under President Donald Trump, considering the president's successful nomination of 29 federal judges since he took office in 2017. Trump has largely favored white judges for the nominations, with 92 percent of his first 87 judicial nominees being white. One was black and one was Latino, while five were Asian-American.  

The Brookings Institution estimates that 50 percent of federal district court judges could be Republican appointees by mid-2020 if Trump's pace of nominations continues, up from 34 percent when he took office in 2017.

"Our estimates suggest that a 10 percentage point increase in the share of Republican-appointed judges in each court would increase the racial sentencing gap by approximately five percent and the gender sentencing gap by roughly two percent," wrote Yang and Cohen.

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