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Sentencing Bias: Why More Research Is Needed

Sentencing Bias: Why More Research Is Needed


By Dr. Jade Pumphrey, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

After someone is convicted of a crime, his or her sentence can be influenced by many factors including age, gender, and criminal history. However, there may be hidden biases that influence the severity of sentencing.

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Research on sentencing bias is inconclusive and often contradictory. Some research (Bushway & Piehl, 2001) did not find connections between racial disparities in sentencing. However, other research (Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2007) has found that racial discrimination underlies the greatest disparity in the sentencing process.

There is disagreement among researchers about the results of various analyses because there is disagreement about how best to measure racial bias in sentencing itself. Aggravating and mitigating circumstances must be taken into consideration, as well as multiple potential reasons for the disproportionate overrepresentation of African Americans in the incarcerated population (Walker et al., 2007). In addition, African-Americans and Hispanics are sentenced to longer terms than Caucasians (Bushway & Piehl, 2001).

Sentencing Bias and Disparity

Walker et al. (2007) propose explanations for sentencing disparities that are not linked to racial bias. For example, they suggest that minorities commit more crimes and have more serious prior convictions and criminal histories than Caucasians. They also suggest minorities may be more likely to be of low socioeconomic status and more likely to be unemployed. Researchers contend that economic discrimination may be a more substantial factor to sentencing bias than racial discrimination.

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States have made efforts to reduce the potential for bias by implementing flat-time sentencing guidelines, which minimize judicial discretion in sentencing. Such mandatory minimums for certain types of offenses are credited for curbing racial discrimination (Walker et al., 2007). However, it is suspected, but not proven, that minimum sentences are attached to crimes that are generally committed by minorities (e.g., drug crimes). Even with more structured sentencing guidelines, research suggests that minorities are given above the average mandatory minimum sentences (Walker et al., 2007).

Enhanced Research Needed to Evaluate Sentencing Practices

Bushway and Piehl (2001) contend that systematic research is needed to record statistically relevant information, so as to evaluate more closely the disparities and their causes during the sentencing process and to determine whether disparity exists. These researchers argue that sentencing bias exists at all levels of the criminal justice system; it is not simply a matter of judicial discretion but rather multiple factors working within the criminal justice system, including discretion in arrest patterns (Bushway & Piehl, 2001).

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It is imperative to establish a consistent theoretical framework and model for assessing sentencing bias. At present, there is no one generally accepted method for acquiring data, thus making it difficult to interpret the data to establish a correlation or a relationship. Having sufficient empirical research to support claims of discrimination and disparity in sentencing is necessary to work towards eliminating sentencing bias and discriminatory practices.

Jade PumphreyAbout the Author: Dr. Jade Pumphrey has worked in higher education since 2006 and has taught more than 65 different criminal justice courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Pumphrey obtained an AS in General Science, a BS in Criminal Justice, an MS in Forensic Science Investigations and a PhD in Public Safety/Criminal Justice. In addition to her work in higher education, Pumphrey volunteers for her local police department as an on-call victim assistant.


Bushway, S., & Piehl, A. (2001). Judging judicial discretion: Legal factors and racial discrimination in sentencing. Law and Society, 35(4).

Walker, S., Spohn, C., & DeLone, M. (2007). The color of justice: Race, ethnicity, and crime in America (4th ed.). Belmont: Thomson Wadswroth.


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