Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Corrections for Racial Disparities in Law Enforcement

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Corrections for Racial Disparities in Law Enforcement

Article excerpt


Much empirical analysis has documented racial disparities at the beginning and end stages of criminal cases. However, our understanding about the perpetuation of--and even corrections for--differential outcomes in the process remains less than complete. This Article provides a comprehensive examination of criminal dispositions using all DWI cases in North Carolina from 2001 to 2011, focusing on several major decision points in the process. Starting with pretrial hearings and culminating in sentencing results, we track differences in outcomes by race and gender. Before sentencing, significant gaps emerge in the severity of pretrial release conditions that disadvantage black and Hispanic defendants. Yet when prosecutors decide whether to pursue charges, we observe an initial correction mechanism: Hispanic men are almost two-thirds more likely to have those charges dropped relative to white men. Although few cases survive after the plea bargaining stage, a second correction mechanism arises: Hispanic men are substantially less likely to receive harsher sentences and are sent to jail for significantly less time relative to white men. The first mechanism is based, in part, on prosecutors' reviewing the strength of the evidence, but much more on declining to invest scarce resources in the pursuit of defendants who fail to appear for trial. The second mechanism seems to follow more directly from judicial discretion to reverse decisions made by law enforcement or prosecutors. We discuss possible explanations for these novel empirical results and review methods for more precisely identifying causal mechanisms in criminal justice.


     A. Theoretical Considerations
     B. DWI Case Processing in North Carolina
     A. The ACIS Data
     B. Descriptive Statistics
     A. The Empirical Model
     B. The First Correction Mechanism: Prosecutors
     C. The Second Correction Mechanism: Judges


Although recognized for years, widespread concern over racial, ethnic, and income-based disparities persists in the criminal justice system. (1) These differentials arise at various stages of case processing, starting with the probability of being stopped and searched by law enforcement, and culminating in penalties assessed after conviction, irrespective of any prior plea agreement. (2) These bookend events have received ample attention in the literature. (3) But intermediate decision points--the terms of bail at arraignment, whether the prosecutor declines to charge an arrestee, the quality of legal representation, and plea agreements--are not well understood. (4) Moreover, the predominant analytical framework compares outcomes for black defendants relative only to their white counterparts with little to no discussion of the rapidly growing Hispanic population. (5)

This Article addresses both deficiencies. First, we examined the anatomy of a subset of criminal offenses from arrest to sentencing at several critical junctures, and, second, we accounted for puzzling differences between Hispanic and white defendants, as well as between Hispanic and black defendants. Our findings suggest that racial minorities (6) still fare worse than white defendants, especially at the time of arrest. (7) Even if such differences arise in law enforcement practices, we found strong evidence that the judicial process self-corrects by offsetting--or at least narrowing--these gaps as the prosecution's case develops. (8)

Our empirical analysis focuses exclusively on driving while intoxicated (DWI), also known as driving under the influence (DUI), a decidedly major public health issue. (9) As of 2009, DWI arrests were the second-most common offense across the United States. (10) State legislatures have responded to the threats posed by drunk driving through tough laws designed to deter DWI offenses and punish perpetrators. …

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