Race and Presentencing
Decisions: The Cost of Being
Marvin D. Free, Jr.
In 1944 Gunnar Myrdal wrote An American Dilemma, a critique of blackwhite relations in the United States. Almost sixty years later African Americans remain a marginalized group. African Americans, for example, are considerably more likely than whites to be impoverished. In 1999 almost one-fourth of all African Americans lived in poverty, a rate that is approximately three times greater than that of non-Hispanic whites (Dalaker & Proctor, 2000). Perhaps nowhere, though, is African American marginality more apparent than in their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, where African Americans account for 46 percent of all inmates with sentences of more than one year in state or federal jurisdictions (Beck, 2000). Additionally, adult African American males are almost 7 times more likely than their white counterparts to be held in a correctional facility, whereas adult African American females are almost 6.5 times more likely than adult white females to be incarcerated (Pastore & Maguire, 2000). African Americans further comprised 43 percent of the death row population in state and federal prisons at year-end 1998 (Snell, 1999).
Given the overrepresentation of African Americans in criminal justice statistics, a question regarding the impact of race in the criminal justice system inevitably arises. Whereas the U.S. Supreme Court maintains that aggregate racial disparities do not constitute prima facie evidence of racial discrimination in specific cases,1 researchers continue to debate the issue of racial discrimination in sentencing (for reviews see Free, 1996,