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Race, Drug, and Criminal Sentencing: Hidden Effects of the Criminal Law

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 24 Issue: 1 Dated: (1996) Pages: 39-55
C W Barnes; R Kingsnorth
Date Published
17 pages
This study analyzed a sample of 1,379 cases involving persons arrested and charged with a single drug felony in Sacramento County, California, in 1987, and completed before December 31, 1989.
Data were collected from district attorney files to explore the intersection between the defendant's racial/ethnic status, drug type, and criminal justice system decisionmaking from the point of intake in the district attorney's office to final case disposition. Findings revealed blacks were significantly more likely than whites and Latinos to have their cases rejected or dismissed by prosecutors. Whites were more likely to be placed on diversion and to have their charges reduced to a misdemeanor. Blacks were more likely than Latinos who were more likely than whites to received a prison term. When sentenced to prison, blacks and Latinos received substantially longer terms than whites. Two major explanations for the findings are offered. First, the penalty structure prescribed by the penal code stipulates significantly less penalties for those charged with methamphetamine offenses than for those charged with offenses involving other drugs, in particular crack cocaine, and these drugs represent drugs of choice for different racial/ethnic groups. Second, the law contains more severe penalties for those charged with possession for sale and sale than for those charged with simple possession. The authors believe the character of inner-city drug markets, coupled with law enforcement drug suppression strategies, mean that blacks and secondarily Latinos are more frequently charged with more severe offenses than whites. These factors, rather than racial/ethnic status per se, account for the differences in outcomes. Supplemental study data are appended. 39 references, 12 notes, and 11 tables