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Looking Beyond the Sentence: Examining Policy Impacts on Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing Across Stages and Groups, and Over Time

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2023
53 pages

This report discusses a research study that used publicly available federal sentencing data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission to measure racial disparities for multiple race groups and stages of sentencing over time, from 1999 to 2021.


The authors of this research report present the findings of their study of publicly available sentencing data to measure racial disparities for multiple race groups and stages of sentencing, from 1999 to 2021. The authors measured racial disparities between matched cases across three stages of federal sentencing, represented by two elements each; they identified at which points in time the disparities changed significantly by using time series plots and structured break analyses; and they used this information to systematically review federal policies to identify which might have contributed to significant decreases in racial disparities. Using the breakpoints, the authors reviewed policies that might have contributed to significant decreases in racial disparities across the six elements of federal sentencing. Based on their findings, the authors made several recommendations: that policymakers and researchers consider the entire federal sentencing process when investigating disparities; to measure and account for disparities among all demographic groups, in addition to those between white and nonwhite or white and Black people, to understand the broad range of experiences of all people in the sentencing process; that policymakers and researchers extend impact analyses beyond the apparently relevant policies, offense types, and groups, to fully understand the policy impacts; to further research the effects that the U.S. Attorney General and other attorneys have on racial disparities throughout the sentencing process that policymakers include clear statements in their laws, directives, rulings, and amendments that are operational from the outset and require minimal clarification or subjective interpretation; and that further inquiry be made into the impact of retroactive policies and social factors on racial disparities.

Date Published: January 1, 2023