U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Relationship between Race, Ethnicity, and Sentencing Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Sentencing Research

NCJ Number
Ojmarrh Mitchell; Doris L. MacKenzie
Date Published
December 2004
193 pages
This report presents the summary and the final report of a meta-analysis of the research literature regarding the relationship between race/ethnicity and sentencing outcomes.
A substantial body of research has investigated the relationship between race/ethnicity and sentencing outcomes; the findings have often been quite divergent. The purpose of the current study was to objectively and comprehensively review the literature in this area using the quantitative method of meta-analysis. In addition to investigating whether there is racial disparity in sentencing outcomes, this study addressed why the research literature has produced inconsistent findings. The meta-analysis concentrates on five types of sentencing outcomes: (1) imprisonment decisions; (2) length of incarcerative sentence; (3) simultaneous examinations of imprisonment and sentence length decisions; (4) discretionary lenience; and (5) discretionary punitiveness. A total of 85 studies meeting eligibility requirements were pulled from various bibliographic databases, such as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service and Sociological Abstracts. The magnitude and direction of observed racial disparities from each study were calculated. Results of analysis of variances and multiple regression analyses indicated that African-American and Latinos were generally sentenced more punitively than were Whites; this effect remained after controlling for defendant criminal history and current offense seriousness. Sentencing disparities were observed for studies that examined drug offenses, imprisonment or discretionary sentencing decisions, and in recent Federal court data analyses. Evidence also suggested that sentencing guidelines were associated with smaller sentencing disparities. Overall, the meta-analysis calls into question the argument that there is no or minimal racial/ethnic sentencing disparity operating in American courts. Policymakers are called upon to re-evaluate sentencing practices. Tables, figures, appendixes, references