Much has been written about mass incarceration and how it has fallen especially hard on people of color. Given their representation in the U.S. population, for example, black and Hispanic males are far more likely than their white counterparts to be sent to jail or prison. Such disproportionality may be due to the greater involvement of blacks and Hispanics in serious street crime, especially violent crime, which would result in differential incarceration. It also could be due to discretionary decisions by criminal justice officials during arrest, charging, conviction—and, key to the focus of this article, sentencing—which might produce disparity, to the disadvantage of black and Hispanic men. Various theories seek to explain racial and ethnic sentencing disparity by focusing on characteristics of individuals and criminal cases, features of court organization and decision-making, and social contexts surrounding courts.
Literally hundreds of studies in the past 40 years and beyond have focused on sentencing decisions in local courts and unwarranted racial/ethnic punishment disparity, defined as racial/ethnic differences that persist after accounting for legally prescribed and perhaps case-processing influences. Some reviews of this large and mature body of literature have shown that young, black, and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic male defendants tend to receive more severe sentences than other defendants. In addition, reviews have noted how the sentencing role of race/ethnicity is often conditional on gender and other factors, and that racial/ethnic disparity in sentencing varies in connection with characteristics of courts and their surrounding social contexts. Future research on race, ethnicity, and sentencing should address disparity in relation to earlier (e.g., charging and conviction) and later (e.g., parole, probation, or parole revocation) stages of criminal justice decisions, as well as how the social characteristics of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys affect disparity. Research studies should continue to examine how specific punishment policies (e.g., mandatory minimums, risk assessments, and sentencing guideline provisions and departures) may be the sources of racial and ethnic disparity.