U.S. Sentencing Commission Releases Updated Analysis of Demographic Differences in Federal Sentencing

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United States Sentencing Commission

Study Concludes Sentencing Differences Persisted During Latest Five-Year Period, Offers New Information About Possible Sources of Disparity

WASHINGTON, D.C. ― Today the U.S. Sentencing Commission published updated research on demographic differences in federal sentencing finding that—after controlling for available personal and offense characteristics—sentencing differences across demographic groups persisted during the five years following the Commission’s often-cited 2017 Demographic Differences in Sentencing Report.

Judge Carlton W. Reeves, Chair of the Commission and U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi said, “Affirming our testimony at our Senate confirmation hearing, we all have a duty to eradicate racial and other unwarranted disparities from every part of our criminal justice system. That is why the Commission is committed to providing judges, lawmakers, and citizens with the most up-to-date information about sentencing differences among demographic groups. While this study’s insights into the roots of those differences is limited by the unavailability of certain data—such as that regarding decisions by law enforcement, prosecutors, other justice system actors, and other relevant history and characteristics of the individuals sentenced—its findings offer important information for practitioners, researchers, and others looking to make sentencing more just.”

Building on the Commission’s earlier research, the 2023 Demographic Differences in Federal Sentencing Report used new analytical techniques and newly available data to answer whether demographic factors are associated with two important sentencing decisions:

    1. whether to impose a sentence of prison or probation, and
    2. the length of imprisonment, when imposing a prison sentence.

The refined analysis included more than 300,000 individuals sentenced for a federal felony or Class A misdemeanor between fiscal years 2017 and 2021 for which the Commission received complete sentencing documentation.

Summary of Findings:

The Report finds that, in the data the Commission examined, demographic differences in sentencing can largely be attributed to the initial decision whether to sentence an individual to imprisonment, rather than to the length of a prison term once a decision to impose imprisonment has been made.

The Commission’s research found substantial variation by gender and race in the likelihood of a defendant receiving a probation sentence.

  • Black males were 23.4% less likely to receive probation compared to White males.
  • Hispanic males were 26.6% less likely to receive probation compared to White males.
  • Black females were 11.2% less likely to receive probation than White females.
  • Hispanic females were 29.7% less likely to receive probation than White females.

When the analyses focused solely on cases in which the court imposed a sentence of imprisonment (94% of the individuals sentenced), the Commission found that the sentencing differences were less pronounced than when probation sentences were included.

  • Black males received prison sentences that were 4.7% longer than White males.
  • Hispanic male received prison sentences that were 1.9% longer than White males.
  • Hispanic females received prison sentences that were 5.9% shorter than White females. Other comparisons among females were not statistically significant.

The Commission has released five reports examining demographic differences in sentencing. Each report is available on the Commission’s website. Visit www.ussc.gov for these reports and other information on the Commission and its work.