Institutionalizing inequality in the courts: Decomposing racial and ethnic disparities in detention, conviction, and sentencing [2020]

A significant body of literature has examined racial and ethnic inequalities in sentencing, focusing on how individual court actors make decisions, but fewer scholars have examined whether disparities are institutionalized through legal case factors. After finding racial and ethnic inequalities in pretrial detention, conviction, and incarceration based on 4 years of felony court data (N = 83,924) from Miami‐Dade County, we estimate nonlinear decomposition models to examine how much of the inequalities are explained by differences in criminal history, charging, and for conviction and incarceration, pretrial detention. Results suggest that inequality is greatest between White non‐Latinos and Black Latinos, followed by White non‐Latinos and Black non‐Latinos, ranging from 4 to more than 8 percentage points difference in the probability of pretrial detention, 7–13 points difference in conviction, 5–6 points in prison, and 4–10 points difference in jail. We find few differences between White non‐Latinos and White Latinos. Between half and three‐quarters of the inequality in pretrial detention, conviction, and prison sentences between White non‐Latino and Black people is explained through legal case factors. Our findings indicate that inequality is, in part, institutionalized through legal case factors, suggesting these factors are not “race neutral” but instead racialized and contribute to inequalities in court outcomes.

Marisa Omori, Nick Petersen
Criminology, 24 September 2020