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Sentencing Disparity in the USA Research Paper

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Updated: May 28th, 2021

The War on Drugs

The existence of the problem of racial disparity can be linked to several major federal cases and decisions that happened during US history. According to Hetey and Eberhardt, the prison population in the United States rapidly increased due to several changes in punitive policies (1949). First of all, this increase can be linked to the War on Drugs mentioned above. This particular campaign was intended to reduce citizens’ involvement in the illegal drug trade and discourage the consumption and production of cocaine and other drugs.

The presence of racial disparities in this situation was connected to people’s economic and living environments as it created a vast difference between sentencing traffickers of crack cocaine and powder cocaine (Bailey et al. 1459). As the production of crack cocaine was cheaper than its powder version, the black population of the country was using it more frequently due to lower incomes and more limited financial capabilities (Bailey et al. 1459).

The difference between sentencing guidelines deemed the process of crack cocaine trafficking to be a much more serious crime and, thus, exposed the black community to penalties and convictions “100 times harsher” and longer than those received by white people (Bailey et al. 1459). This process influenced the black community immensely and led to the rise in incarcerations and more extended sentencing periods. Although official regulations did not target the black community openly, the ideology of differentiating between two types of one drug and creating two distinct kinds of sentences exposed more impoverished communities to harsher penalties. Thus, it is possible to believe that such guidelines for punishments were based on racism and discrimination of people with lower incomes and poorer living conditions.

However, the black population was not the only one affected by such regulations because other minority groups also suffered as a result of discrimination. The situation in minority communities that were affected by inadequate living conditions, limited working opportunities, and racial pressures raised the probability of drug abuse among their members. Thus, the percentages of minorities being arrested and convicted for cheap drug trafficking and consumption were much higher than those of white people. The main difference in these processes was based on the fact that individuals who were using the cheaper version of crack cocaine were judged much harsher and were possibly exposed to sentences that damaged their lives and families. Although the black population was the primary target of these regulations, the Hispanic community also suffered as a result (Clair and Winter 346).

While the War on Drugs does not currently exist as an official initiative, its guidelines still affect the minority populations of the country. According to Rocque, one can outline many possible reasons for black people to be incarcerated more frequently than white people (292). For example, the problem of differential treatment so clearly defined during the years of aggressive drug prohibition persists in the judicial system. According to Clair and Winter, organizational pressure and the influence of criminal justice officials were highlighted by judges as a way to enforce differential treatment for minorities (353). Some judges reported noticing particular patterns in the behavior of court officials who sometimes used their influence to treat black, Hispanic, and other minority communities differently than white offenders.

The statistics also show that black people and especially black men are more likely to have a longer sentence than white men (Rocque 296). The reasons behind these results are similar to those found in the War on Drugs initiative. First of all, many black people face differential treatment explained above. This attitude can be defined by limited financial opportunities to hire a better lawyer, the overall bias against minorities, racial profiling, and indirect discrimination through other legal policies (Rocque 299). For example, the lack of representation in court may place people of color in a disadvantageous position.

Three Strikes Laws

The increase in punitive punishments is another source of sentencing disparities in the United States. For example, the existence of various multiple strikes laws significantly influences repeat offenders and exposes them to harsher treatment. According to these laws, repeat offenders should automatically receive longer sentences after being convicted of three serious or violent crimes. While this approach is not new to the system, a unique example of California’s “Three Strikes Law” shows how the concept of punishing repeat offenders can go too far. Before this law being changed in 2012, California used it to sentence offenders who were convicted of non-violent and non-serious crimes but were never convicted of major felonies (Hetey and Eberhardt 1951). Thus, people who served multiple prison times for less serious crimes such as robbery could receive a life-long sentence without committing any violent crimes.

The existence of this law exposed the black community to increased rates of sentencing and unfair treatment in court. According to Hetey and Eberhardt, more than 40% of people serving their sentence as repeat offenders in the state are black (1949). These rates can be explained by the fact that the law once treated drug possession as a serious crime, allowing the system to convict more black people as repeat offenders and give them a life-long sentence (Bailey et al. 1460). After the law was changed in 2014, the severity of punishment for drug possession was reduced (Bailey et al. 1460). This change could influence future sentencing decisions. However, people currently serving lengthy prison times may still suffer from inequality.


Extensive data reveals differences in sentencing black and white people for similar crimes. For instance, the study by Rehavi and Starr found that black men can serve longer prison times than white males for the same offense (1320). This disparity is mostly unexplained in official records, which further supports the idea of racial discrimination and unfair treatment of minority populations. As Clair and Winter’s study shows, the primary source for differential treatment can come from prosecutors who often establish the initial charge decision and ask for seemingly appropriate punishments (333).

An opportunity to influence these decisions lies in the hands of the policymakers who can establish more defined guidelines for minimum penalties and regulate racial profiling in courts to reduce unfair sentencing. Moreover, education of officials and the public about racial discrimination should be used to raise awareness about the problem and help all key participants to gather more insight into the process of conviction.


One can see a clear disparity in sentencing that exists in the US and affects one group of people, namely minorities, more than others. The research of the US judicial system shows multiple issues connected to discriminatory behavior. The cases described above reveal a historical foundation for the current situation in American prisons. Laws and initiatives created as a part of the War on Drugs were implicitly based on racist ideologies and a discriminatory attitude towards minority communities and continue to influence the decisions of the court and the rates of imprisonment in the country. The lack of explanations of sentencing decisions reveals an issue of deeply embedded racial discrimination that should be addressed and eliminated.

Works Cited

Bailey, Zinzi D., et al. “Structural Racism and Health Inequities in the USA: Evidence and Interventions.” The Lancet, vol. 389, no. 10077, 2017, pp. 1453-1463.

Clair, Matthew, and Alix S. Winter. “How Judges Think About Racial Disparities: Situational Decision-Making in the Criminal Justice System.” Criminology, vol. 54, no. 2, 2016, pp. 332-359.

Hetey, Rebecca C., and Jennifer L. Eberhardt. “Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 10, 2014, pp. 1949-1954.

Rehavi, M. Marit, and Sonja B. Starr. “Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Sentences.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 122, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1320-1354.

Rocque, Michael. “Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System and Perceptions of Legitimacy: A Theoretical Linkage.” Race and Justice, vol. 1, no. 3, 2011, pp. 292-315.

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