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Sentencing: Guidelines - Racial Disparities In Punishment

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On the issue of racial disproportionalities in sentencing, observers of guideline reforms have so far rendered a mixed verdict. For the nation as a whole, racial disparities in incarceration have become more pronounced since the early 1980s, when guidelines were first introduced. Forceful charges have been leveled that the federal guidelines, particularly for drug offenses, and in conjunction with mandatory penalties for drug crimes enacted by Congress, have exacerbated preexisting racial disparities in sentencing. The story appears to be a bit different at the state level. Among state guideline systems, the evaluation literature is scanty on this issue, but most state commissions have reported a modest reduction in racially disparate sentencing following the enactment of guidelines. No guideline jurisdiction claims to have made major headway on the problem of racial disproportionalities in punishment. So far, even under the best case scenario, it appears that sentencing commissions and guidelines can achieve small advances in problems of racial disparity, but commissions and guidelines (as in the federal example) can also act to make such problems worse. No one, in other words, should support guideline reform in the belief that racial equity in sentencing will automatically follow.

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