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Harvard Law study finds stark racial disparities in criminal court sentencing in Massachusetts

The disproportionately long sentences handed down to Black and Latino people could not be explained by other factors such as criminal record or severity of charge, researchers found.

John Adams Courthouse in Boston is home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
John Adams Courthouse in Boston is home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/file

Harvard Law School researchers published a sweeping study Wednesday that confirmed what many people of color and criminal justice reform advocates have been saying for years: Black and Latino people make up a disproportionately high percentage of criminal cases in Massachusetts and, when convicted, are given longer sentences than their white counterparts.

While research has long revealed a similarly troubling pattern in court systems around the country, the new study was conducted at the request of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, and with uncommon access to state criminal records. It provides a framework not just to understand the ethnic and racial disparities in charging and sentencing, officials said, but to begin to correct them.

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“This impressive report will provide us with important guidance as we work to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the Massachusetts criminal justice system,” Gants said in a statement Wednesday. “It is a ‘must read’ for anyone who is committed to understanding the reasons for such disparities and taking action to end them.”

According to the study, which reviewed criminal cases that passed through Massachusetts courts between 2014 and 2016, Black people account for 6.5 percent of the state’s population, but 17.1 percent of criminal court cases; Latinos are 8.7 percent of the Massachusetts population, but accounted for 18.3 percent of the cases. White people, who make up 74 percent of the Massachusetts population, accounted for 58.7 percent of criminal court cases. Black people are also imprisoned at a rate 7.9 times that of white people and Latinos at 4.9 times than white people.

Researchers considered factors other than race that may have contributed to the longer sentences received by people of color, including the defendants' criminal history and demographics, initial charge severity, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics.

“Even after accounting for these characteristics, Black and Latinx people are still sentenced to 31 and 25 days longer than their similarly situated White counterparts, suggesting that racial disparities in sentence length cannot solely be explained by the contextual factors that we consider and permeate the entire criminal justice process,” researchers wrote.

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“When those who are Black and Latinx, poor, suffering from mental illness or substance use disorder, or otherwise marginalized know that they will be treated differently by those in the position to take away their liberty — or even their lives — their trust in the legal system is eroded,” said Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who was not directly involved in the study. “Our communities are made less safe as a result of these disparities.”

Lead researcher Felix Owusu, a PhD scholar in inequality and wealth concentration at Harvard, emphasized that the data does not capture how often people in certain neighborhoods or of certain backgrounds commit crimes, only how often they are arrested and charged.

“People of color are overrepresented across all stages of the criminal justice system relative to their share of the population,” Owusu said. “The disparities are already large by the time they show up in the data that we analyzed.”

That was especially true for cases involving illegal drug and gun possession: Black and Latino people are more likely to be stopped and searched; the charges they initially face may be more severe, though the charges they are ultimately convicted of tend to be about equal to their white counterparts; and, while researchers were not able to obtain data on plea bargain processes, they could determine that Black and Latino people were more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to receive longer sentences than white people.

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Those disparities, Owusu said, did not stop when researchers looked at broader policies that fall outside the discretion of judges and prosecutors. Owusu compared illegal drug and gun possession to driving under the influence, where white people make up a larger share of those arrested. Though all three crimes can have deadly consequences, someone charged with drunken driving can enter a diversion program, complete educational courses, stay out of trouble, and have the case dismissed without a conviction. Fewer diversion options exist for drug and gun possession.

“We hope that our findings can support and inform efforts by policy makers and advocates to address the system’s disparate impacts on communities of color,” Owusu said.

The research released Wednesday is the latest to show racial disparities in sentencing across the United States. A 2012 report to Congress showed Black men’s sentences were 19.5 percent longer than those of white men in similar circumstances. The trend was still in place when the report was updated in 2017. While Massachusetts district attorneys, legislators, and community members have been discussing ways to change the state’s criminal system — including Rollins’s high-profile pledge to stop charging people for minor, nonviolent crimes — granular data on the role race appears to play in charging and sentencing in Massachusetts has not been available until now.

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The study took four years to complete, and turned out to be a laborious undertaking. Researchers often encountered missing data, difficult-to-compile paper records and PDF files, public safety agencies that did not respond to their records requests, and the limitations of the state’s antiquated record-keeping system.

In all, It took painstaking work to fill in gaps, said Brook Hopkins, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School.

“We were able to provide what I think is a good analysis, but that was hard. And it shows how the administrative criminal justice data is not collected in a way that makes this kind of analysis easy to do," Hopkins said.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said her office has run into a similar problem trying to study racial disparities in their own cases. The data simply did not exist in a usable format, she said. Her staff began tracking the cases, and now post the data on their website in an Excel spreadsheet anyone can download and analyze.

“This is really important to us, that we be looking at cases with a racial equity lens,” Ryan said.

Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey’s spokesman said the office is making bias and fair policing training available to law enforcement leaders, and pushed for a State Senate bill that would require trial courts to compile more case data.

“We are in the process of digesting the full 100-page report, but in the immediate, we strongly agree that the lack of a common data collection system across agencies is a substantial barrier to even understanding the scope of these issues — especially on a county-to-county basis,” spokesman David Traub said.

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Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey said the report “will help us continue to move forward in our ongoing efforts to root out racial and ethnic bias and inequity in our criminal justice system.”

The report proves what public defenders have seen for years, said Anthony J. Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

“The big question now — particularly in this moment — is: What are we going to do to make sure the criminal legal system is, in fact, just?” Benedetti said. “All of us working in connection with this system share responsibility for making it fair, equitable, and effective.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.