Science

White People Get Better Plea Bargains Than Black People

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Transcript:

Here in the United States, we have a pretty clear problem with race and law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement has helped turn the nation’s attention to the fact that black people are being murdered by cops disturbingly often, and that’s in addition to the fact that though the majority of our prisoners are white, black people make up 37.9% of the prison population while only being about 13% of the general population. Past research has shown that African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5x the rate of whites, due to “harsh sentences that disproportionately affect African-Americans; implicit racial biases that affect judges; and structural disadvantages that affect African-Americans before they enter the criminal-justice system.”

 

Now we have a new study that reveals even more criminal justice bias, towards black Americans who may not even see any prison time. Plea bargains are what happens when the prosecutor offers the defendant a deal (like avoiding or reducing prison time) in exchange for the defendant pleading guilty and avoiding a costly trial. A researcher at Loyola Law School examined more than 30,000 cases in the state of Wisconsin and found some stark differences between how black and white defendants were treated.

 

His most stunning finding was that as a group, white people are 25% more likely than black people to have their charges dropped or reduced down from a felony to a misdemeanor. So white people are significantly less likely than black people to be convicted of a felony at all, and when it comes to misdemeanors, white people are much more likely to not be convicted at all, or to only be convicted of crimes that don’t carry any potential prison time.

 

The only time race didn’t seem to matter was when the defendants had past criminal records or if the crime was a more severe felony, suggesting that in those cases prosecutors have more information to go on and causing them to lean less heavily on race. But when it’s a minor felony or the defendant has no prior criminal history, the result was clear: black people got harsher deals while white people tended to get off scott free.

 

This is one of those research papers that seems so obvious to anyone who has been paying attention, but it’s crucial science for those people who are working hard to reform the criminal justice system to be less biased. There are people out there who truly believe that black Americans are just genetically programmed to be criminals rotting away in prison, and some of those people are in positions of authority. They need to be ousted or convinced to drop their pseudoscientific bigotry, and research like this can help us do it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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