Study Finds Racial Disparity in Criminal Prosecutions

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from The New York Times,

Black and Hispanic defendants are more likely to be held in jail before trial and more likely to be offered plea bargains that include a prison sentence than whites and Asians charged with the same crimes, according to a two-year study of prosecutions handled by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

The study, by the Vera Institute of Justice, found that race was a significant factor at nearly every stage of criminal prosecutions in Manhattan, from setting bail to negotiating a plea deal to sentencing.

But race was not the sole factor, the study’s authors said. A number of legal considerations were found to be more important in predicting a defendant’s fate, among them the seriousness of the charge and the defendant’s arrest record.

Nicholas Turner, the president of the institute, said researchers could not determine what caused the unequal treatment. “It could be implicit bias,” he said. “It could also be race-neutral policies that end up having a particular disparate effect.”

The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said he was concerned that racial disparities had cropped up, especially in the areas of pretrial detention and sentencing.

Funded by the Justice Department, the study grew out of Mr. Vance’s campaign promise to determine whether race played a role in the decisions of prosecutors. In a rare move, his office opened its books to the institute’s analysts for 2010 and 2011 and gave them unfettered access.

The study is one of the largest of its kind to be done in the United States, and its findings echoed what smaller studies had found in places like Milwaukee. The authors examined 222,542 resolved prosecutions over two years, scrutinizing data for all misdemeanors and a selection of felonies, including drug offenses.

The report comes at a time of heightened public debate across the nation about whether the criminal justice system treats people of different races equally. That debate drove the legal battle over the stop-and-frisk program in New York City and has prompted the United States attorney general to order an examination of federal convictions and sentencing guidelines.

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