Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Race and Sentencing in WI

One of the many things policymakers in WI expected of its second sentencing commission was to analyze the impact of race on sentencing. Turns out that report was one of the few things the commission there actually accomplished on its own and why it's being sunsetted this year. Nevertheless, the truly fine staff I left behind there produced a really good report on sentencing disparity in the state before the lights go out and sent out this summary and link to the full report. It's definitely worth the time of anyone interested in corrections sentencing:

As part of its enabling legislation, the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission is required to study whether race is a basis for imposing sentences in criminal cases. In fulfillment of this legislative mandate, the Commission has prepared a report which examines offender and sentence characteristics by race for five specific felony offenses in Wisconsin – Sexual Assault of a Child, Sexual Assault, Robbery, Burglary, and Drug Trafficking. . . .

The findings of this report show that racial disparities do, in fact, exist within Wisconsin ’s sentencing system. Yet, the true causes of these disparities are often difficult to identify and measure. Disparities in sentencing are most likely due to the confluence of multiple issues, and are the result of institutionalized defects rather than malicious intent. Due to the fact that race is generally correlated with many legal sentencing factors permissible for judges to consider – criminal record, employment history, and educational opportunities – it becomes a challenging directive to sufficiently separate the effect of race over other interconnected factors. Ultimately, more and better data is required to improve the strength and meaning of the results.


Racial disparities, when present, were typically found in sentence types (prison or probation), not sentence lengths.

Where disparities existed, a higher percentage of Black and Hispanic offenders received prison sentences (versus probation) than White offenders.

The amount of racial disparity found in sentence types typically increased as offense severity decreased. For example, less severe offenses such as 3rd Degree Sexual Assault, Burglary, Robbery, and Drug Trafficking showed greater levels of disparity than more severe offenses such as 1st & 2nd Degree Sexual Assault, 1st & 2nd Degree Sexual Assault of a Child, Armed Robbery, and Burglary Plus.

In Drug Trafficking cases, across the board, a higher percentage of Black offenders received prison sentences (versus probation) than White offenders. This disparity increased as offense seriousness decreased. The difference in percentage between White offenders who received probation versus other racial groups is particularly pronounced in Class D through Class H felonies.

Racial disparities were not typically found in sentence lengths. Amounts of time, when broken down by offense type and felony class, were largely stable and comparable across all racial categories. In some instances, White offenders received longer sentences. In other instances, Black and/or Hispanic offenders received longer sentences.

* Copies of the report, as well as the Commissioners’ addendums, can be found on our website at

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