GOAL: Sentencing is neutral with respect to race, gender, and social and economic status. F.S. 921.001(4)(a)1.
FACT: This study found that an offender's race has NO meaningful effect on the sentencing decisions made by Florida courts under the 1994 and 1995 sentencing guidelines structure.
Does An Offender's Race Affect Sentencing in Florida?
The question addressed in this section is: Does an offender's race affect the sentencing decisions made by Florida courts when punishing felony offenders under the 1994 and 1995 sentencing guidelines structure. FS 921.001(a)(4) states that sentencing guidelines embody the principles that sentencing is to be "neutral with respect to race..". This study will determine whether this racial equity principle is followed when offenders are punished under Florida's sentencing guidelines mechanism.
Two major changes in Florida's sentencing policy have occurred in the past two decades. In 1983, the indeterminate sentencing policy, also known as parole, was eliminated and replaced with sentencing guidelines. In 1994, the 1983 sentencing guidelines structure was replaced with the 1994 sentencing guidelines. Modifications to the 1994 guidelines were made in 1995 for crimes committed on or after October 1, 1995. This study does not examine whether race affected sentencing decisions under the pre-1983 indeterminate sentencing system or during the 1983 guidelines period. It focuses on whether racial disparity exists within the 1994 and 1995 sentencing guidelines system.
Some evidence suggests that racial disparity in sentencing did exist in Florida prior to the 1983 sentencing guidelines. The Sentencing Study Committee, which was responsible for recommending that Florida implement sentencing guidelines in 1983, conducted an in-depth study of 1,000 felony cases in 1979.1 The committee examined the decision whether to sentence an offender to jail or prison and, if a prison sentence was imposed, the length of incarceration. The committee found that, after holding legally relevant factors constant, non-white offenders were significantly more likely to receive a jail or prison sentence than white offenders.
For this analysis, all felony offenders sentenced in Florida courts from July 1, 1994 to December 31, 1996 who were sentenced under the 1994 or 1995 sentencing guidelines were examined for racial disparity.2 Statistical models were constructed based on variables contained in the sentencing guidelines database maintained by the Florida Department of Corrections. This database contains information on 221,351 offenders sentenced under the guidelines over the period specified.
These statistical models examine the effect of all variables simultaneously, to measure the unique effect of each on the sentencing outcome while holding all other variables constant. This method enables one to determine whether an offender's race influences judicial sentencing when other characteristics about the offender are held constant (seriousness of the current offense, prior criminal record, offenses other than the primary offense,3 and victim injury).
Sentencing is analyzed as a two part decision: first, whether or not the offender is sentenced to prison, and second, if a prison sentence is administered, the length of the prison sentence. Prior sentencing research has conclusively demonstrated that the judiciary utilizes different factors, or the same factors to different degrees, when making the in/out prison decision versus the length of prison sentence decision.
The following factors were included in the models. Details on how these factors were measured are located at the end of this section.
Many of these factors are measured in multiple ways to model the sentencing decisions. For example, the types of prior criminal convictions are measured by the number of prior robbery convictions, the number of prior drug convictions, etc. This approach was taken to develop models which explain as much of the sentencing decisions as possible. A total of 32 factors were used to predict the sentencing decisions.5
Details on the methodology of the current study can be obtained from the author.6
This study failed to find evidence that an offender's race has any meaningful effect on decisions made by Florida courts under the 1994 and 1995 sentencing guidelines structure. This leads to the conclusion that the goal of racial equity explicit in the sentencing guidelines law has been met when examining the 1994 and 1995 sentencing guidelines structure.
Overall, the empirical evidence presented in detail in this section documents three primary conclusions:
It should be noted that this report addresses only disparity at the final stage in the judicial process of sentencing for felony offenders. The question of whether racial disparity exists at earlier stages in the criminal justice process, such as arrest, prosecution, plea bargaining, or conviction is not within the scope of this report.
Is there racial equity is specific sentencing guidelines factors? Below are the answers to this question.
Question: Are black offenders more likely than white offenders to be sentenced to state prison following a felony conviction when one does not examine any of the factors which are intended to affect sentencing (e.g., seriousness of the current crime, prior criminal record and victim injury)?
Answer: Yes. Table 1 shows that black offenders were more likely to be sentenced to prison than white offenders: black 20.8% versus white 14.1 %. When examining the likelihood of black and white offenders receiving a prison sentence for general crime types (violent, property, drug, and other), black offenders were more likely to be sentenced to prison than white offenders when the primary offenses was one of the following: Violent (+11.4%), Property (+3.4%), Drug (+9.4%), and Other (+3.7%). Within the nine more specific offense types (murder/manslaughter, sexual/lewd assault, etc.) black offenders were more likely to be sentenced to prison than white offenders. Examining 49 specific offense types in Table 1 reveals that black offenders were more likely to be sentenced to prison than white offenders within 39 offense types, while white offenders were more likely in 10 offense types.
Question: If the judge decided a prison sentence is appropriate for a convicted felon, were black and white offenders given different lengths of prison sentences under the 1994 and 1995 sentencing guidelines when no legally relevant factors are considered?
Answer: Yes, but only for some offense types. Table 2 shows that the average sentence lengths for black and white offenders were identical (4.6 years) when all 38,031 offenders sentenced to prison are considered. However, while the numerical differences are not significant, when examining differences in average sentence lengths within the four broad offense types, black offenders received longer sentences in three of the four groups (Violent: black = +0.3 years, or + 4.7% longer prison sentences; Property: black +0.3 years, + 8.1%; Other: black +0.4 years, +13.6%). White offenders received an average of 0.6 years, or 17.2% longer prison sentences than black offenders for drug convictions.
When examining racial differences within nine specific offense types, black offenders received longer sentences in seven of the groups. Black offenders sentences averaged 20.4% (2.7 years) greater than white offenders for those convicted of murder or manslaughter. Black offenders convicted of robbery received 18.8% (1.2 years) longer sentences, on average, than white offenders convicted of robbery. Overall, white drug offenders received 17.2% (0.6 years) longer sentences than black offenders. However, when examining those convicted of selling drugs, black offenders received 25.5% (0.6 years) longer sentences than white offenders. White drug offenders received longer sentences for possession and trafficking of drugs compared to black offenders convicted of the same crimes.
Question: Are black offenders and white offenders different relative to sentencing factors considered relevant to the in/out prison decision and the length of prison sentence?
Answer: Yes. Table 3 shows that, for most factors, black offenders consistently exhibited higher rates of characteristics generally associated with judicial decisions towards more punitive sanctions. The figures in Table 3 reveal the following differences:
Question: Was race a factor used by judges to any meaningful degree when deciding whether to sentence an offender to prison when all other measured factors are held constant?
Answer: No. Table 4 shows that when considering the 32 factors measured in the in/out prison decision model, race was of no meaningful importance. Out of the 32 factors in the model, 28 affected the prison decision to a greater degree than whether the offender was white or black. Only three factors out of 32 were less influential in determining the sentence imposed than the race of the offenders. This leads to the conclusion that the race of the convicted felon had no meaningful impact on the judge's decision whether a prison sentence is warranted. Instead, the number of times the offenders had been sentenced to prison in the past, the seriousness of the current crime, the extent and severity of prior criminal record, the number of prior prison sentences, and the injury inflicted upon the victim are the factors that primarily determined the imprisonment decision.
The statistical models utilized in this study are able to explain just over half (52.2%) of the judicial decision of whether to sentence a criminal to prison. There are obviously a significant number of factors taken into consideration by judges to decide whether to administer a prison sentence that are not accounted for in the models constructed for this study. Without the ability to measure all the factors considered in the prison decision, the true effect of race cannot be quantified.
Question: Once a judge decided to sentence an offender to prison, was race a meaningful factor in deciding the length of the prison sentence?
Answer: No. Table 5 clearly demonstrates that, under the sentencing guidelines, race has no meaningful effect on the length of prison sentences. Of the 31 factors in the model, 28 affected the length of the prison sentence to a greater degree than race. There were only 2 other factors less influential than race is determining the length of the prison sentence. The seriousness of the current offense, extent of victim injury, and the severity of the offender's prior criminal record, are factors which judges apparently consider most when determining the length of the prison sentence.
This study of 221,351 felons sentenced under Florida's sentencing guidelines policy from July 1994 to December 1996 clearly demonstrates that the goal of ensuring equity in sentences across racial groups has been realized. There is no meaningful empirical evidence to suggest that black offenders and white offenders are treated unequally by the judicial system under these sentencing guidelines. The race of the offender does not have any meaningful bearing on the decision by Florida judges to sentence a felon to prison or how long imprisoned offenders will be incarcerated. What were influential in determining these punishment decisions were factors such as the severity of the crime(s) for which the offender is being sentenced, the extent and seriousness of the offender's prior criminal record, the number of prior prison sentences, and the amount of injury inflicted upon the victim.