South Carolina courts exhibit massive racial bias against blacks – study

© Issac Brekken
Black people in South Carolina are treated much less fairly by the legal system than in any other state, a British-American study on criminal sentencing patterns reveals. It identified a clear racial bias, affecting both, decision-making and the severity of the sentence.

The study found that blacks are more likely to be sentenced for things like petty crimes, and that their sentences were usually harsher than their white counterparts.

For the research, the University of Sheffield analyzed 17,000 sentencing decisions by South Carolina courts from 2000, when data was last collated. Dr Todd Hartman, of Sheffield, and Rhys Hester, of the University of Minnesota, tested for something called the “liberation hypothesis.”

The approach holds that in severe crimes – especially those where evidence is unambiguously against the defense – a judge will most often decide on a harsh sentence, regardless of race. The sentence would be in line with expectations.

However, when crimes take place that provide plenty of room for ambiguous interpretations or flimsy evidence and questionable accounts, the judge has no choice but to decide on a sentence at their own discretion. Now other things come into play, such as race and other factors, but also the judge’s mood on that day.

In this way, the judge is “liberated” from the responsibility of being more prudent.

The study found that South Carolina judges were nearly always more likely to not fuss over details, and hand a more severe sentence down more readily to a black than to a white man.

This fact is especially troublesome when one considers that the state doesn’t have sentencing guidelines, affording greater decision-making (sentencing) powers than elsewhere.

The trend that Hartman and Hester picked up on didn’t just favor whites. It also implied that blacks with lesser criminal histories than their white counterparts were still more likely to be sent to prison.

They write that the chances of incarceration shoot up by 43 percent for a black man on the stand who has no criminal history, and 10 percent for those who committed minor crimes, compared to the same crimes committed by whites. It was only a severe criminal record in the case of both skin colors that invalidated the so-called “black penalty.”

Interestingly, while lower-severity black crimes received considerably harsher punishment, high-severity black offenses actually received lesser sentences than severe white offenses.

"Whether intentional or not, the fact that race appears to influence incarceration and criminal sentencing decisions is troubling. It is particularly concerning that this pattern of disparity appears to be affecting African American offenders with limited criminal histories or for less severe crimes,” Hartman said.

The researchers hope the study will set the groundwork for a more serious look into the judicial treatment of African-Americans. Hartman feels that the current focus on police shootings and excessive use of force against blacks in the US is only part of that picture.