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Black, Latinx Defendants Face Longer Average Prison Sentences in Mass., Harvard Law School Report Finds

The Harvard Law School library at Langdell Hall is open to all Harvard ID holders normally, and only to Harvard law affiliates during exam periods.
The Harvard Law School library at Langdell Hall is open to all Harvard ID holders normally, and only to Harvard law affiliates during exam periods. By Grace Z. Li
By Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writer

Black and Latinx people imprisoned in Massachusetts receive significantly longer average sentences than white people charged with similar offenses, according to a Wednesday report published by the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School.

Using data from more than 500,000 cases, the report aims to explain racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants ’76 requested the study after a 2014 analysis by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission determined the state experiences higher racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration compared to national rates.

The report discovered people of color are vastly overrepresented in the state’s criminal caseload relative to their share of the state’s population. White people are also more likely to have their cases resolved through less severe outcomes such as pretrial probation.

“Although Black people make up only 6.5% of the state’s population, African Americans are the subjects of 17.1% of criminal court cases in Massachusetts,” the authors of the report wrote in a press release. “Similarly, Latinx people constitute only 8.7% of the Massachusetts population but 18.3% of the cases.”

The program’s research also reveals differences in sentence length among those who receive convictions. Compared to white people, Black people receive sentences an average of 168 days longer, and Latinx people receive sentences an average of 148 days longer. This trend holds true even after controlling for alternate factors, such as criminal history, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics.

“This indicates that much of the disparity in incarceration sentences results from racial differences in the length of incarceration sentences given rather than the overall rate at which defendants are convicted or incarcerated,” the report reads.

Black and Latinx people typically face more severe initial charges than their white counterparts for similar conduct which, according to the report, can increase the risk of longer sentences and result in harsher plea deals.

“Our analysis shows that one factor—racial and ethnic differences in the type and severity of initial charge—accounts for over 70 percent of the disparities in sentence length,” the report reads.

Felix Y. Owusu, a lead researcher for the project, also noted that mandatory and statutory minimum sentences contribute to the disparity because people of color are more likely to face charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences and are more likely to be subsequently incarcerated.

“Even if every single person within the court system — prosecutors, judges, etc — if all those people act in a completely unbiased fashion, you have laws where certain kinds of activities that we know are more likely to be charged to people of color are criminalized more heavily than activities that the white people are doing,” Owusu said.

The report found that Latinx defendants are twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum charge compared to white defendants. It also claims white defendants more often receive shorter sentences than the mandatory minimum.

“Further, existing mandatory minimums are rarely applied in cases involving charges commonly faced by white defendants, such [as] subsequent OUI offenses,” it reads.

There are also sentencing disparities among defendants within ethnic groups, according to previous studies referenced in the report. It cites research finding that Black defendants with darker skin and “African” features typically receive more severe punishments than those with lighter skin and “European” features.

“These disparities can also be seen within other races,” the report reads. “Indeed, within each race, ‘more stereotypical [B]lack features’ are a significant predictor of sentence length.”

The authors’ press release states they hope their work can help legislators address disparate impacts within Massachusetts’s criminal justice system.

“We are pleased to provide the most comprehensive accounting of racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal system to date,” Brook Hopkins, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program, said in the press release. “At this time of national reckoning about race, we hope this report will inspire Massachusetts to confront the racial disparities that permeate our criminal system.”

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

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