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Black Lives Matter, Racial Inequality in Criminal Justice Report, The Sentencing Project, 2015

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For more information, contact:
The Sentencing Project
1705 DeSales Street NW
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(202) 628-0871

This report was written by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., Research Analyst
at The Sentencing Project. The report draws on a 2014 publication
of The Sentencing Project, Incorporating Racial Equity into Criminal
Justice Reform.
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Congressional staff during a walkout at the Capitol in December 2014.
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Executive Summary		


I. Uneven Policing in Ferguson and New York City	


II. A Cascade of Racial Disparities Throughout the Criminal Justice System	


III. Causes of Disparities	


A. Differential crime rates	
B. Four key sources of unwarranted racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes	
IV. Best Practices for Reducing Racial Disparities	
A. Revise policies and laws with disparate racial impact	
B. Address implicit racial bias among criminal justice professionals	
C. Reallocate resources to create a fair playing field		
D. Revise policies that exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities and redirect public spending	
toward crime prevention and drug treatment


V. Implementation Strategies and Metrics for Success	


VI. Conclusion	


Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 1

2 The Sentencing Project

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me,” Eric Garner told the group of approaching New
York City police officers. As they wrestled him to the ground to arrest him for selling untaxed loose
cigarettes, an officer placed Garner in a chokehold and maintained his grip despite Garner’s pleas
for air. One hour later, Garner was pronounced dead. The unarmed black man’s death and the white
officer’s non-indictment despite videotape evidence have heightened concerns about police practices
and accountability. In the wake of the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in
Ferguson, Missouri, and that officer’s non-indictment, a growing number of Americans are outraged and
demanding change.
“Black lives matter” has become a rallying cry in light
of evidence that the criminal justice system is failing to
uphold this basic truth. Official data, although woefully
inadequate,1 show that over half of those killed by police in
recent years have been black or Latino.2 Officers involved
in these killings are rarely indicted, much less convicted,
for excessive use of force.3 And official responses
to recent protests have spurred further controversy:
militarized police forces disrupted public assemblies in
Ferguson,4 and New York City’s police union blamed
pro-reform politicians and nonviolent protesters for the
killing of two officers by a mentally unstable man.5
The criminal justice system’s high volume of contact with
people of color is a major cause of African Americans’
disproportionate rate of fatal police encounters, as well as
of broader perceptions of injustice in many communities.
This briefing paper identifies four key features of the
justice system that contribute to its disparate racial impact,
and presents recent best practices for targeting these
inequities drawn from adult and juvenile justice systems
around the country. In many cases, these practices have
produced demonstrable results.
Policing is by no means the only stage of the justice system
that produces racial disparity. Disadvantage accumulating
at each step of the process contributes to blacks and
Latinos comprising 56% of the incarcerated population,
yet only 30% of the U.S. population.6 The roots of this

disparity precede criminal justice contact: conditions
of socioeconomic inequality contribute to higher rates
of some violent and property crimes among people of
color. But four features of the justice system exacerbate
this underlying inequality, and jurisdictions around the
country have addressed each one through recent reforms.

1. Many ostensibly race-neutral policies
and laws have a disparate racial impact.
Police policies such as “broken windows” and stop,
question, and frisk have disproportionately impacted
young men of color. Prosecutorial policies, such as
plea bargain guidelines that disadvantage blacks and
Latinos compound these disparities, as do sentencing
laws that dictate harsher punishments for crimes
for which people of color are disproportionately
One reform to address this source of disparity in
policing is the significant retrenchment of “stop and
frisk” in New York City after a court ruled that the
policy violated the constitutional rights of blacks and
Latinos. Recent legislation reducing the sentencing
disparity between the use and distribution of crack
versus powder cocaine in California, Missouri, and
at the federal level are examples of efforts to tackle
sentencing inequalities.

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 3

2. Criminal justice practitioners’ use of
discretion is – often unintentionally –
influenced by racial bias.
Racial disparities in traffic stops have diminished on
a nationwide basis in recent years, but persist in many
jurisdictions. Police officers are more likely to stop
black and Hispanic drivers for investigative reasons.
Once pulled over, people of color are more likely
than whites to be searched, and blacks are more
likely than whites to be arrested. In jurisdictions like
Ferguson, these patterns hold even though police
have a higher “contraband hit rate” when searching
white versus black drivers. Prosecutors and judges
also often treat blacks and Hispanics more harshly
in their charging and sentencing decisions.
The Vera Institute of Justice’s work with prosecutors’
offices around the country is one initiative
addressing bias in charging decisions by monitoring
outcomes and increasing accountability. Similarly,
judges in Dorchester, Massachusetts, have worked
with police and prosecutors to develop guidelines to
reduce racial disparities in charging enhancements
for people arrested for drug crimes in a school zone.

4. Criminal justice policies exacerbate
socioeconomic inequalities by imposing
collateral consequences on those with
criminal records and by diverting public
A criminal conviction creates a barrier to securing
steady employment, and those with felony drug
convictions are disqualified from public assistance
and public housing in many areas. In addition,
allocating public resources to punitive programs
comes at the expense of investments in crime
prevention and drug treatment programs. Because
of their higher rates of incarceration and poverty,
people of color are disproportionately affected by
these policy choices.
A key development in this area is California’s
reclassification of a number of low-level offenses
from felonies to misdemeanors under Proposition
47 in 2014. This initiative is intended to reduce
prison admissions and to spare many low-level
offenders the collateral consequences of a felony
conviction. The law also redirects a portion of state
prison savings – estimated to be $150-$250 million
annually – to crime prevention and drug treatment

3. Key segments of the criminal justice
system are underfunded, putting blacks and
Latinos – who are disproportionately lowRecent high-profile killings by police officers demonstrate
income – at a disadvantage.
the need for better police practices and improved
Most states inadequately fund their indigent defense
programs. Pretrial release often requires money
bond, which can be prohibitive to low-income
individuals and increases the pressure on them
to accept less favorable plea deals. Many parole
and probation systems offer supervision with
little support. Public drug treatment programs are
also underfunded, thereby limiting treatment and
sentencing alternatives for low-income individuals.
New Jersey’s recently overhauled bail laws, which will
increase nonmonetary release options, is an effort
to create a more even playing field for low-income
individuals. In Illinois, the expansion of alternative
community programs has helped to nearly halve
reliance on secure detention for youth.

4 The Sentencing Project

accountability. They also underscore the need for revising
policies that place people of color under greater police
scrutiny and that lead to their disadvantage throughout
the criminal justice system. To address this crisis of
confidence, especially among people of color, criminal
justice practitioners and policymakers should seize this
opportunity to adopt and expand upon existing best
practices for promoting racial equity at all levels of the
justice system.
This briefing paper is organized as follows: Section
I examines racial disparities in policing in Ferguson,
Missouri, and New York City. Section II compares
these patterns with nationwide trends and relates them
to disparate outcomes at later stages of the criminal
justice process. Section III examines the causes of blacks’
and Latinos’ overrepresentation in the justice system,

New York City, December 13, 2014: People march in the National March Against Police Violence, which was organized by National Action Network,
through the streets of Manhattan on December 13, 2014 in New York City. The march coincided with a march in Washington, D.C. and came on the heels
of two grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men. Photo by Andrew Burton, Getty Images.

including differential crime rates and the four sources
of inequities in the justice system. Section IV presents
best practices from around the country for reducing
racial disparities created by these four sources. Section
V explores strategies for implementation and evaluation.
Section VI concludes by reviewing recent achievements
and highlighting the need for further reforms. 

This report largely focuses on the experiences of African Americans / blacks, Latinos / Hispanics, and
whites in the justice system. These are the populations for whom the most research and data are available.
Nationwide data and research that include Asian Americans and American Indians are more limited: reports
often aggregate these groups into one category, labeled “other.” Existing research suggests that many of the
trends described in this report hold for American Indians, for sub-groups of Asian Americans, and for other
communities of color.7

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 5

Black and white Americans experience different
policing practices. They encounter the police at
different rates and for different reasons, and they
are treated differently during these encounters.
Officers’ racially biased use of discretion – either
intentional or unintentional – is one cause of racial
disparities in police contact that are not explained by
differences in crime rates. Another cause is formal
police policies such as “stop and frisk” and “broken
windows” policing. Designed to target minor violations
with the rationale of circumventing serious crimes, these
policies place people of color under greater scrutiny.
Officer Darren Wilson stopped Michael Brown for
jaywalking. Officer Daniel Pantaleo and his colleagues
approached Eric Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes.
Disproportionate police contact with people of color in
these two very different jurisdictions set the context for
these tragic deaths.

Figure 1. Ferguson traffic stops, 2013:
Population stopped and reason for stop
Population stopped


Blacks were over
3.5 times as likely
as whites to be

1 in 2

1 in 8

Reason for stop


A suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, Ferguson had a population
of just over 21,000 in 2013. Though African Americans
comprised 63% of the city’s driving-age population in
that year, they accounted for 86% of drivers stopped by
Ferguson police.8 That amounted to almost one stop for
every two black adults in Ferguson, versus just over one
stop for every eight white adults.
Ferguson police cited various reasons for stopping black
and white drivers. The majority of white drivers (68%)
were stopped for a moving violation while the majority
of black drivers (57%) were stopped for a license or
equipment problem (41% and 16%, respectively).
Research has shown that although blacks are more
6 The Sentencing Project




and License



The majority of whites
were stopped for a
moving violation; the
majority of blacks for
an equipment or
license problem.
Blacks were also more
likely to be stopped for
investigative reasons.

Source: Office of the Missouri Attorney General (2014). Racial Profiling
Data/2013: Ferguson Police Department. Available at: http://ago.
Note: Because data are based on stops and not drivers, drivers with
multiple stops are counted multiple times. Reasons for stops exceed
100% because some stops were made for multiple reasons.

likely than whites to have vehicle code violations, this
difference does not account for their disproportionate
rates of stops for non-moving violations.9 Investigative
stops – one of the most discretionary reasons for traffic
stops – accounted for 7% of stops among black drivers in
Ferguson, compared to 4% of stops among white drivers.

Figure 2. Ferguson traffic stops: Population
searched, contraband hit rate, and arrest rate,
Population searched




Police searched a smaller
proportion of white drivers
than black drivers.

Contraband hit rate



Once searched, whites
were more likely to be
caught carrying contraband
such as drugs or guns.

Arrest rate


Blacks were twice as likely
as whites to be arrested
during a traffic stop.

Source: Office of the Missouri Attorney General (2014). Racial
Profiling Data/2013: Ferguson Police Department. Available at: http://

compared to their white counterparts. Black drivers were
more likely to have these warrants in part because of
unpaid fines related to their disproportionate exposure to
traffic enforcement.
Municipalities such as Ferguson may have a fiscal incentive
to focus law enforcement efforts on traffic violations and
petty offenses. Court fines and fees have become a major
source of revenue for certain municipal governments in
St. Louis County – primarily those serving largely black
populations with a high poverty rate.10 Court fines and
forfeitures accounted for 20% of Ferguson’s operating
revenue in 2013.11 To ensure collection of these court
fines and fees, these municipalities have issued a high
rate of arrest warrants. Ferguson outpaced all other cities
in the region with more than 1,500 warrants per 1,000
people in 2013 – about four times the rate for the city of
St. Louis.12
In the aftermath of protests in late summer 2014, the city
of Ferguson announced reforms to cap the amount of
revenue generated from such tickets.13 But that promise
was short-lived. In December 2014, Ferguson’s finance
director announced plans to increase revenues from fines
to fill a budget deficit from its most recent fiscal year.14


Policing in New York City took a dramatic turn in the
After making a stop, Ferguson police searched 12% of
1990s under mayor Rudy Giuliani, with the launch
black drivers in contrast to 7% of white drivers. Despite –
of order-maintenance strategies known as “broken
or as a result of – the high rate of stops and searches for
windows” and “quality of life” policing. These approaches
black drivers, police had a lower “contraband hit rate”
seek to promote public safety by clamping down on petty
when searching black drivers compared to white drivers.
offenses and neighborhood disorder.15 With Michael
They found contraband – primarily drugs and sometimes
Bloomberg as mayor (2002weapons – on 22% of black
2013) and Raymond Kelly
drivers who were searched and
as police commissioner, the
on 34% of white drivers who Officer Darren Wilson stopped Michael
police also embarked on a
Brown for jaywalking. Officer Daniel
were searched.
Pantaleo and his colleagues approached campaign to stop, question,
Yet blacks were twice as likely Eric Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes. and frisk primarily male
residents of neighborhoods
as whites to be arrested during
Disproportionate police contact with
populated by low-income
a traffic stop (10% versus 5%).
people of color in these two very
Two factors account for this different jurisdictions set the context for people of color – areas
thought to have higher crime
disparity. First, by searching
these tragic deaths.
rates. Many of these “stop and
such a high proportion of
frisk” encounters were initiated
black drivers, officers found
contraband on a similar share of black drivers as white with little legitimate rationale: officers noted “furtive
drivers (but on a smaller proportion of black drivers that movements” as the reason for 44% of stops between
they searched). The more influential factor, though, was 2003 and 2013. While deemphasizing felony arrests,
that black drivers were more likely to have arrest warrants these policies dramatically increased the volume of arrests
Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 7

Figure 3. Summonses, misdemeanor arrests, stop and frisks, and felony arrests since 1993


Stop and frisks
Misdemeanor arrests

Felony arrests













Source: Ryley, S., Bult, L., & Gregorian, D. (2014). Exclusive: Daily News Analysis Finds Racial Summons for Minor Violations in ‘Broken Windows’
Policing. New York Daily News. Available at:
Note: Stop and frisks are shown beginning in 2002, the year in which these data became readily available.

for misdemeanor offenses, of summonses for violations
of the administrative code (such as public consumption
of alcohol, disorderly conduct, and bicycling on the
sidewalk), and of investigative police encounters with
innocent people.
Men of color have borne the brunt of these policies. Men
have been over four times as likely as women to be arrested
for a misdemeanor in New York City since 1980.18 Between
2001 and 2013, 51% of the city’s population over age 16
was black or Hispanic. Yet during that period, 82% of
those arrested for misdemeanors were black or Hispanic,
as were 81% of those who received summonses.19 The
racial composition of stop and frisks was similar.20
Commissioner William Bratton played a crucial role in
implementing “broken windows” policies when he led
the city’s transit police in 1990 and during his first tenure
as police commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, from
1994 to 1996. Now reappointed, Bratton and Mayor
Bill de Blasio remain committed to this style of ordermaintenance policing, with Bratton touting its efficacy and
explaining that its racial disparities result from targeting
communities and populations with higher violent crime
rates.21 In response to the outcry following Garner’s
8 The Sentencing Project

death, Bratton has announced plans to retrain officers on
appropriate use of force during these encounters.
Yet research shows that order-maintenance strategies
have had only a modest impact on serious crime rates.
New York City experienced a dramatic crime drop during
its period of rising misdemeanor arrests and summonses:
the city’s homicide rate declined by 73% between 1990 and
2000.22 But this was not unique; other large cities including
Seattle and San Diego have achieved similar reductions
in crime since their crack-era crime peaks.23 Although
an early study found that New York City precincts with
higher levels of misdemeanor arrests experienced greater
drops in serious crimes,24 a flawed research design makes
this conclusion unreliable25 and few other studies have
reached the same conclusion.26 More recent studies
have found that high misdemeanor arrest volume,27 high
summons volume,28 and other factors,29 have had only
a modest association or no association at all30 with the
city’s violent crime drop. “Stop and frisk” activity has
also been shown to have no impact on precincts’ robbery
and burglary rates.31 Therefore, while order-maintenance
policing demands a substantial share of public funds,
there is limited evidence to support its efficacy and great
cause for concern about its impact.32

Figure 4. Racial composition of New York City population, summonses, and misdemeanor
arrests, 2001-2013


Population over age 16


Misdemeanor arrests 13%

Population over age 16




Misdemeanor arrests

Population over age 16
Misdemeanor arrests


Source: Data retrieved from Chauhan, P., Fera, A. G., Welsh, M. B., Balazon, E, & Misshula, E. (2014). Trends in Misdemeanor Arrests in New
York. New York, NY: John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Available at: (pp.
25–7); Ryley, S., Bult, L., & Gregorian, D. (2014). Exclusive: Daily News Analysis Finds Racial Summons for Minor Violations in ‘Broken Windows’
Policing. New York Daily News. Available at:
Note: Summons and misdemeanor arrest data are based on incidents rather than individuals: individuals with multiple arrests and summonses
are counted multiple times. Summons data did not include age breakdown and are drawn from approximately 30% of cases that provided race

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 9

Compared to nationwide trends, Ferguson’s and “traffic-safety stops” (reactive stops used to enforce
New York’s racial disparities in policing are in some traffic laws or vehicle codes) and “investigatory stops”
(proactive stops used to investigate drivers deemed
ways representative and in others anomalous.
In recent years, nearly equal proportions of blacks,
whites, and Latinos in the United States have reported
being stopped by the police while on foot or in their
cars.33 But the causes and outcomes of these stops still
differ by race, and staggering racial disparities in rates
of police stops persist in certain jurisdictions.34 These
disparities snowball as individuals traverse the criminal
justice system.
Blacks were 31% more likely and Hispanics were 6%
more likely than whites to report a recent traffic stop in
2011, although in other recent years a similar proportion
of blacks, Latinos, and whites have reported experiencing
these stops.35 Ferguson and New York are two of many
jurisdictions where traffic and pedestrian stops still differ
significantly by race. A recent investigation of the rates at
which the Boston Police Department observed, stopped,
interrogated, frisked, or searched individuals without
making an arrest found that blacks comprised 63% of
these police-civilian encounters between 2007 and 2010,
although they made up 24% of the city’s population.36
Similar trends have led approximately 20 cities across the
country to enter into consent decrees or memoranda of
understanding with the Department of Justice to reduce
excessive force and/or protect the public’s civil rights,
and several other cities are currently under investigation.37
A closer look at the causes of traffic stops reveals that
police are more likely to stop black and Hispanic drivers
for discretionary reasons. A study of police stops between
2003 and 2004 in Kansas City distinguished between
10 The Sentencing Project

suspicious). The authors found that rates of trafficsafety stops did not differ by the driver’s race, but rates
of investigatory stops did, and did so significantly. While
these differences persisted for all ages, they were sharpest
among drivers under age 25: among these drivers, 28% of
black men had experienced an investigatory traffic stop,
as had 17% of black women, 13% of white men, and 7%
of white women.
Class differences did not fully explain this racial disparity:
black drivers under age 40 were over twice as likely as their

Figure 5. Rates of investigatory traffic stops
among Kansas City drivers under age 25,






Source: Epp, C. R., Maynard-Moody, S., & Haider-Markel, D. P. (2014).
Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. Chicago,
IL: The University of Chicago Press (p. 67).

white counterparts to experience investigatory stops for
both the highest- and lowest-valued cars. Traffic-safety
stops, the researchers concluded, are based on “how
people drive,” whereas investigatory stops are based on
“how they look.”

policies is that 49% of African American men reported
having been arrested by age 23, in contrast to 38% of
their non-Hispanic white counterparts.42 The next section
of this briefing paper will examine how much of this
disparity stems from differential crime rates.

Nationwide surveys also reveal disparities in the outcomes The nature of police encounters also differs substantially
of police stops. Once pulled over, black and Hispanic for people of color compared to whites. Several surveys
drivers were three times
conducted between 2002 and
as likely as whites to be
2008 have shown that Hispanics
searched (6% and 7% versus Once arrested, people of color are also were up to twice as likely and
2%) and blacks were twice as likely to be charged more harshly than blacks were up to three times
likely as whites to be arrested whites; once charged, they are more likely as likely as whites to experience
during a traffic stop.39 These to be convicted; and once convicted, they physical force or its threat during
patterns hold even though are more likely to face stiff sentences – their most recent contact with
police officers generally
the police.43 More broadly, when
all after accounting for relevant legal
have a lower “contraband
differences such as crime severity and a 1999 Gallup survey asked
hit rate” when they search
Americans about perceptions
criminal history.
black versus white drivers.40
of police brutality in their
neighborhoods, 58% of people
A recent investigation of all arrests – not just those of color said police brutality took place in their area, in
resulting from traffic stops –  in over 3,500 police contrast to only 35% of whites.44 Police officers’ greater
departments across the country found that 95% of use of discretion when stopping people of color suggests
departments arrested black people at a higher rate than that differences in drivers’ behavior alone are unlikely to
other racial groups.41 The cumulative effect of these account for disparities in use of force.

Figure 6. Lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for those born in 2001
All Men

White Men

1 in 9

1 in 17

1 in 3

1 in 6

All Women

White Women

Black Women

Latina Women

1 in 56

1 in 111

1 in 18

1 in 45

Black Men

Latino Men

Source: Bonczar, T. (2003). Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available at: (p. 1).

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 11

People of color are therefore more likely than whites to
be arrested – in part due to differences in crime rates
but also due to differences in police policies and use of
discretion. Once arrested, people of color are also likely
to be charged more harshly than whites; once charged,
they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted,
they are more likely to face stiff sentences – all after
accounting for relevant legal differences such as crime
severity and criminal history.45 A recent comprehensive
scholarly review conducted by the National Research
Council concluded that:
Blacks are more likely than whites to be confined
awaiting trial (which increases the probability that an
incarcerative sentence will be imposed), to receive
incarcerative rather than community sentences,
and to receive longer sentences. Racial differences
found at each stage are typically modest, but their
cumulative effect is significant.46

12 The Sentencing Project

If recent trends continue, one of every three black
teenage boys can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as
can one of every six Latino boys – compared to one of
every seventeen white boys. 47 Smaller but still substantial
racial and ethnic disparities also persist among women.
New York’s and Ferguson’s racial disparities in policing
are therefore representative of many aspects of policecitizen encounters around the country. Moreover, policing
is not the only stage of the justice system that produces
unwarranted racial disparity. Disadvantage accumulates
throughout the criminal justice process and contributes
to the disproportionate presence of blacks and Latinos
in prisons, jails, and under community supervision. The
next section presents a closer examination of the causes
of these racial disparities.

Like an avalanche, racial disparity grows
cumulatively as people traverse the criminal justice

Figure 7. Homicides by race of offender and

The roots of this disparity precede criminal justice
contact: conditions of socioeconomic inequality
Black on black
contribute to higher rates of certain violent and property
White on white
crimes among people of color. But four features of the
justice system exacerbate this underlying disparity: First,
a variety of ostensibly race-neutral criminal justice
policies in fact have a disparate racial impact. Second,
implicit racial bias leads criminal justice practitioners
to punish people of color more severely than whites.
Black on white
Third, resource allocation decisions disadvantage
White on black
low-income defendants, who are disproportionately
1980 1985 1990 1995 2000
people of color. Finally, criminal justice policies
exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities by imposing
Source: Cooper. A. & Smith, E. L. Homicide Trends in the United States,
collateral consequences on those with criminal records
1980-2008. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available at: http://www.bjs.
gov/content/pub/pdf/htus8008.pdf (p. 13, Figure 19).
and by diverting public spending away from preventative
measures. This section first examines the role of
differential crime rates before discussing inequities
•	 Higher rates of geographically concentrated
created by the criminal justice system.
socioeconomic disadvantage contribute to higher rates
of certain violent and property crimes among African
Americans.50 In 2012, African Americans represented
13% of the U.S. population. But African Americans
People of color are more likely than whites to experience
comprised 39% of arrests for violent crimes (49%
economic disadvantage that is compounded by racial
for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter) and 29%
inequality. These forces erode economic and social
of arrests for property crimes. Information gathered
buffers against crime and contribute to higher rates
from victimization surveys and self-reports of
of certain violent and property crimes – but not drug
criminal offending suggest that, especially for certain
offenses – among people of color.
violent crimes and to a lesser extent for property
crimes, the race of those arrested resembles those
•	 Blacks and Latinos constituted half of the jail
of the people who have committed these crimes.51
population in 2013.48 In 2002, 44% of people in jail
Blacks and Hispanics are also more likely than whites
lacked a high school degree. In the month prior
to be victims of property and violent crimes.52 The
to their arrest, 29% were unemployed, and 59%
overall homicide rate for blacks was 6.2 times higher
reported earning less than $1000/month.49 
than for whites in 2011.53
Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 13

Figure 8. Illicit drug use in past month
among persons aged 12 or older, by race/
ethnicity, 2002-2013


How much of the racial disparity in the prison population
stems from crime rates, and how much is produced by
the criminal justice system? In recent decades, a number
of leading scholars, including Alfred Blumstein and
Michael Tonry, have sought to quantify these effects.
Over various time periods, these studies concluded that
between 61% and 80% of black overrepresentation in
prison is explained by higher rates of arrest (as a proxy
for involvement in crime).56 The remainder might be
caused by racial bias, as well as other factors like differing
criminal histories.57 Several important nuances, described
next, help to interpret these results.

Estimates of the extent to which differential crime
rates account for disparities in imprisonment rates vary
significantly by offense type and geography. In comparing
the demographics of the prison population with arrestees,
these studies have shown that the least racial disparity
2002 2004 2006 2008 2010
exists for the most serious offenses and that the most
exists for the least serious offenses (for which arrest rates
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2013).
are also poor proxies for criminal involvement). This is
Results from the 2013 Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary
of National Findings. Available at:
because criminal justice practitioners can exercise greater
discretion with less serious crimes. Scholars have also
NSDUHresults2013.pdf (Figure 2.12).
noted that there is wide variation among states in the
degree to which arrest disparities explain incarceration
•	 Drug offending does not differ substantially by race. disparities.58
Surveys by federal agencies show that both recently
and historically, whites, blacks, and Hispanics have The overall conclusion of these studies is that racial
used illicit drugs at roughly similar rates.54 Many differences in criminal offending explain a substantial, but
studies also suggest that drug users generally purchase incomplete, portion of the racial differences in the prison
drugs from people of the same race or ethnicity as population for non-drug crimes. If racial differences in
them.55 Socioeconomic inequality does lead people crime rates do not fully account for the high proportion
of color to disproportionately use and sell drugs of African Americans in prisons, what else is driving this
outdoors, where they are more readily apprehended disparity?
by police. But disparities in drug arrests are largely
driven by the factors described later in this section.

14 The Sentencing Project


Myriad criminal justice policies that appear to be raceneutral collide with broader socioeconomic patterns to
create a disparate racial impact. Policing policies
and sentencing laws are two key sources of racial
Police policies that cast a wide net in neighborhoods
and on populations associated with high crime rates
disproportionately affect people of color, as described
in Sections I and II. Consequently, people of color
are more likely to be arrested even for behavior that
they do not engage in at higher rates than whites. This
greater level of scrutiny also contributes to higher rates
of recidivism among people of color.
•	 Almost 1 in 3 people arrested for drug law
violations is black, although drug use rates do
not differ by race and ethnicity.59 An ACLU report
found that blacks were 3.7 times more likely to be
arrested for marijuana possession than whites in
2010.60 This disparity expands at later stages of the
criminal justice system so that 57% of people in
state prisons for drug offenses are people of color,
even though whites comprise over two-thirds of
drug users, and are likely a similar proportion of

Myriad criminal justice policies that
appear to be race-neutral collide
with broader socioeconomic patterns
to create a disparate racial impact.

Figure 9. Racial disparities in marijuana
use in past month and marijuana
possession arrests, 2010

Usage rates

Blacks used marijuana at 1.3 times the rate of

1. “Race Neutral” Laws & Policies

1) Disparate racial impact of ostensibly raceneutral policies and laws

Arrest rates

Blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at
3.7 times the rate of whites.
Source: Edwards, E. Bunting, W. Garcia, L. (2013). The War
on Marijuana in Black and White. New York, NY: American
Civil Liberties Union. Available at:
assets/1114413-mj-report-rfs-rel1.pdf (p. 47); U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services (2011). Results from the 2010 Survey
on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Available at: http://www.
htm (Tbl. 1.28B).

these zones coupled with high urban density has
disproportionately affected residents of urban
areas, and particularly those in high-poverty areas –
who are largely people of color.62 A study in New
Jersey found that 96% of persons subject to these
enhancements in that state were African American
or Latino. All 50 states and the District of Columbia
have some form of drug-free school zone law.

Sentencing laws that are designed to more harshly
punish certain classes of offenses, or to carve out
certain groups from harsh penalties, also often have
a disparate impact on people of color. This occurs •	 Diversion programs and alternative courts
disproportionately bar people of color from
because of how sentencing laws interact with broader
alternatives to incarceration because they frequently
racial differences in our society and within the criminal
disqualify people with past convictions.63
justice system.
•	 Drug-free school zone laws mandate sentencing •	 “Three strikes and you’re out” and other habitual
offender laws disproportionately affect people of
enhancements for people caught selling drugs near
color who are more likely to have criminal records.
school zones. The expansive geographic range of
Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 15

2. Bias in Discretion

2) Racial bias among criminal justice

more likely to pull over people of color for what
researchers call investigatory stops. Once pulled
over, blacks and Hispanics were three times as likely
as whites to be searched, and blacks were twice as
likely as whites to be arrested during a traffic stop.

While most white Americans no longer endorse overt
and traditional forms of prejudice associated with
the era of Jim Crow racism – such as beliefs about
the biological inferiority of blacks and support for •	 Prosecutors: Prosecutors are more likely to charge
people of color with crimes that carry heavier
segregation and discrimination – a nontrivial proportion
sentences than whites.70 Federal prosecutors,
continue to express negative cultural stereotypes of
for example, are twice as likely to charge African
blacks.64 Even more common among most white
Americans with offenses that carry mandatory
Americans, and many people of color, is implicit
minimum sentences than otherwise-similar
racial bias: unintentional and unconscious racial biases
whites. State prosecutors are also more likely to
that affect decisions and behaviors. Psychological
charge black rather than similar white defendants
experiments have shown that these biases are pervasive
under habitual offender laws.
in our society, and are held even by people who disavow
overt prejudice. Implicit racial biases also permeate
the work of criminal justice professionals and influence •	 Judges: Judges are more likely to sentence people
of color than whites to prison and jail and to give
the deliberation of jurors.66
them longer sentences, even after accounting for
differences in crime severity and criminal history.71
In experimental research such as video simulated
In federal cases, the sentencing disparities between
shooter studies, subjects are asked to quickly identify
noncitizens and citizens are even larger than
and shoot armed suspects, or to press another button
those between people of color
to not shoot unarmed suspects.
and whites.72 The race penalty,
Participants more quickly and
Studies of criminal justice
research from the 1990s revealed,
accurately decided to shoot
outcomes also reveal that implicit
is harshest for certain categories
an armed target when that
biases influence the decisions of
of people and offenses: it
person was African American,
criminal justice professionals.
particularly affects men and the
young, and is more pronounced
accurately chose not to shoot
for less serious offenses. In effect, young black
if the unarmed target was white. When researchers
men are perceived as being more dangerous because
conducted this study with a predominantly white group
of their race and socioeconomic characteristics.
of Denver-based police officers, they found that
the officers were less likely than the general public to
mistakenly shoot at black unarmed suspects.68 However, •	 Other members of the courtroom work group:
Unconscious racial bias has been found in many
officers more quickly shot at armed black suspects than
other corners of the criminal justice system. A
at armed white suspects. The researchers concluded
study in Washington state found that in narrative
that while these officers exhibited bias in their speed
reports used for sentencing, juvenile probation
to shoot, their experience and training reduced bias in
officers attributed the problems of white youth to
their decision to shoot.69
their social environments but those of black youth
to their attitudes and personalities.73 Defense
Studies of criminal justice outcomes also reveal
attorneys may exhibit racial bias in how they
that implicit biases influence the decisions of criminal
triage their heavy caseloads.74 Racially diverse
justice professionals. Researchers have analyzed the
juries deliberate longer and more thoroughly than
extent to which implicit bias affects the work of police
all-white juries, and studies of capital trials have
officers, prosecutors, judges, and other members
found that all-white juries are more likely than
of the courtroom work group.	
racially diverse juries to sentence individuals to
•	 Police: As described in Sections I and II, many
death.75 Studies of mock jurors have even shown
jurisdictions continue to experience significant
that people exhibited skin-color bias in how they
racial disparities in police stops. Police have been
evaluated evidence: they were more likely to view
16 The Sentencing Project

ambiguous evidence as indication of guilt for darker
skinned suspects than for those who were lighter
skinned.76 Finally, an investigation of disparities
in school discipline – including rates of out-ofschool suspensions and police referrals – led the
Departments of Education and Justice to declare
that the substantial racial disparities in school
discipline “are not explained by more frequent or
more serious misbehavior by students of color,”
but suggest racial discrimination.77

3) Resource allocation decisions that
disadvantage low-income people
Key segments of the criminal justice system are
underfunded, leading to worse outcomes for lowincome defendants, who are disproportionately people
of color. Moreover, many criminal justice policies
and practices disadvantage people with limited

•	 Most states inadequately fund their indigent
defense programs. While there are many highquality public defender offices, in far too many
cases indigent individuals are represented by public
defenders with excessively high caseloads, or by
assigned counsel with limited experience in
criminal defense.

3. Economic Disadvantages

•	 Certain policies disadvantage lower income
individuals, who are disproportionately people
•	 Over 60% of people in jail are being detained
of color. Examples include risk assessments that
prior to trial.78 Pretrial detention has been shown
give preference to employed people, or probation
to increase the odds of
or parole requirements
conviction, and people who
to report at locations
Key segments of the criminal
are detained awaiting trial
where there is little public
are also more likely to accept
justice system are underfunded...
less favorable plea deals, to
Moreover, many criminal justice
Due to limitations in
be sentenced to prison, and policies and practices disadvantage •	
publicly funded treatment
to receive longer sentences.
defendants with limited resources.
options, there are fewer
Seventy percent of pretrial
releases require money
bond, an especially high hurdle for low-income
afford to pay for treatment programs as an
defendants, who are disproportionately people of
alternative to confinement.
color. Blacks and Latinos are more likely than
whites to be denied bail, to be set a higher money
bond, and to be detained because they cannot pay •	 Community supervision and reentry programs
are underfunded, with too many parole and
their bond. They are often assessed to be higher
probation systems offering supervision with little
safety and flight risks because they are more likely to
experience socioeconomic disadvantage and to have
criminal records. Implicit bias also contributes to
people of color also faring worse than comparable
whites in bail determinations.

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 17

4. Excessive Punishment

4) Criminal justice policies that exacerbate
socioeconomic inequalities
Because the criminal justice system is an institution that
primarily reacts to – rather than prevents – crime, it is
ill-equipped to address many of the underlying causes
of crime. But mass incarceration’s hold on vast public
resources and the obstacles erected for people with
criminal records further erode the economic and social
buffers that prevent crime.

heightened surveillance, these obstacles contribute
to three of four people released from prison arrested
within 5 years, and half being re-imprisoned.82

Mass incarceration’s hold on
vast public resources and the
obstacles erected for people with
criminal records further erode the
economic and social buffers that
prevent crime.

•	 Reentry is obstructed by the collateral
consequences of a criminal conviction. A criminal •	 Excessive spending on criminal justice programs
record creates overwhelming odds against securing
limits public funds that can be allocated to crime
steady employment.80 Moreover, those with felony
prevention and drug treatment. Because of their
drug convictions are disqualified from receiving
higher rates of incarceration, victimization, and
federal cash assistance, food stamps, and publicly
poverty, people of color are disproportionately
subsidized housing in many areas.81 Combined with
affected by these shortcomings in policy.

These four features have created an unequal justice system. They contribute to blacks’ and Latinos’
high rates of contact with the police and disadvantage them throughout the criminal justice process.
Excessive levels of control and punishment, particularly for people of color, are not advancing public
safety goals and are damaging families and communities.83 Consequently, although people of color
experience more crime than whites, they are less supportive than whites of punitive crime control

The best practices described in the following section are drawn from the following sources, unless otherwise
stated: The Sentencing Project (2008). Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual
for Practitioners and Policymakers. Washington, D.C. Available at:
publications/rd_reducingracialdisparity.pdf (pp. 11–57); Hoytt, E. H., Schiraldi, V., Smith, B. V., & Ziedenberg, J.
(2001). Reducing Racial Disparities in Juvenile Detention (2001). Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Available at:;
Shoenberg, D. (2012). Innovation Brief: Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Pennsylvania. Chicago, IL:
MacArthur Foundation. Available at:; National Association
of Counties (2011). Juvenile Detention Reform: A Guide for County Officials, Second Edition. Available at:; New York
University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy (2013). 16(4). Available at:
18 The Sentencing Project

Jurisdictions around the country have implemented reforms to address these sources of inequality. This
section showcases best practices from the adult and juvenile justice systems. In many cases, these
reforms have produced demonstrable results.
treat these cases as non-criminal offenses subject to
a fine rather than jail time.89 Yet experts worry that
this policy does not go far enough to remedy unfair
policing practices and may still impose problematic
consequences on those who are ticketed.90

Through careful data collection and analysis of racial
disparities at various points throughout the criminal
justice system, police departments, prosecutor’s offices, •	 Several school districts have enacted new school
courts, and lawmakers have been able to identify and
disciplinary policies to reduce racial disparities
address sources of racial bias.
in out-of-school-suspensions and police referrals.
Reforms at Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward
Revise policies with disparate racial impact:
County Public Schools have cut school-based arrests
Seattle; New York City; Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward
by more than half in five years and significantly
County Public Schools; Los Angeles Unified School District
reduced suspensions.91 In Los Angeles, the school
•	 After criticism and lawsuits about racial disparities
district has nearly eliminated police-issued truancy
in its drug law enforcement, some precincts in and
tickets in the past four years and has enacted new
around Seattle have implemented a pre-booking
disciplinary policies to reduce reliance on its school
diversion strategy: the Law Enforcement
police department.92 School officials will now deal
Assisted Diversion program. The program gives
directly with students who deface property, fight, or
police officers the option of transferring individuals
get caught with tobacco on school grounds. Several
arrested on drug and prostitution charges to social
other school districts around the country have
services rather than sending them deeper into the
begun to implement similar reforms.
criminal justice system.

1. “Race Neutral” Laws & Policies


Revise laws with disparate racial impact:

•	 Successful litigation and the election of a mayor with Federal; Indiana; Illinois; Washington, D.C.
a reform agenda effectively curbed “stop and frisk”
•	 The Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) of 2010 reduced
policing in New York City.86 Mayor Bill de Blasio
from 100:1 to 18:1 the weight disparity in the
vowed that his administration would “not break the
amount of powder cocaine versus crack cocaine
law to enforce the law” and significantly curbed a
that triggers federal mandatory minimum sentences.
policy that was described by a federal judge as one
If passed, the Smarter Sentencing Act would apply
of “indirect racial profiling.”87 Thus far, the reform
these reforms retroactively to people sentenced
has not had an adverse impact on crime rates.88 In a
under the old law. California recently eliminated
related effort to address disparities in enforcement,
the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity for certain
the New York City Police Department stated it
offenses, and Missouri reduced its disparity.
would no longer make arrests for possession of
Thirteen states still impose different sentences for
small amounts of marijuana but would instead
crack and cocaine offenses.93
Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 19

1. “Race Neutral” Laws & Policies

•	 Indiana amended its drug-free school zone
sentencing laws after the state’s Supreme Court
began reducing harsh sentences imposed under
the law and a university study revealed its negative
impact and limited effectiveness. The reform’s
components included reducing drug-free zones
from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, eliminating them around
public housing complexes and youth program
centers, and adding a requirement that minors
must be reasonably expected to be present when
the underlying drug offense occurs. Connecticut,
Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey,
and South Carolina have also amended their laws.94

•	 Officials in Clayton County, Georgia reduced
school-based juvenile court referrals by creating
a system of graduated sanctions to standardize
consequences for youth who committed lowlevel misdemeanor offenses, who comprised the
majority of school referrals. The reforms resulted
in a 46% reduction in school-based referrals of
African American youth.

Anticipate disparate impact of new policies:
Iowa; Connecticut; Oregon; Minnesota

•	 Iowa, Connecticut, and Oregon have passed
legislation requiring a racial impact analysis
before codifying a new crime or modifying the
•	 Through persistent efforts, advocates in Illinois
criminal penalty for an existing crime. Minnesota’s
secured the repeal of a 20-year-old law that required
sentencing commission electively conducts this
the automatic transfer to adult court of 15- and
analysis. This proactive approach of anticipating
16-year-olds accused of certain drug offenses
disparate racial impact could be extended to local
within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing.
laws and incorporated into police policies.
A broad coalition behind the reform emphasized
that the law was unnecessary and racially biased, Revise risk assessment instruments:
causing youth of color to comprise 99% of those Multnomah County, OR; Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial
automatically transferred.
•	 Following a campaign that emphasized disparate •	 Jurisdictions have been able to reduce racial
disparities in confinement by documenting
racial enforcement of the law, a ballot initiative
racial bias inherent in certain risk assessment
in Washington, D.C. may legalize possession of
instruments (RAI) used for criminal justice
small amounts of marijuana in the district.95
decision making. The development of a new RAI
Address upstream disparities:
in Multnomah County, Oregon led to a greater than
New York City; Clayton County, GA
50% reduction in the number of youth detained
and a near complete elimination of racial disparity
•	 The District Attorney of Brooklyn, New York
in the proportion of delinquency referrals resulting
informed the New York Police Department that he
in detention. Officials examined each element of
would stop prosecuting minor marijuana arrests
the RAI through the lens of race and eliminated
so that “individuals, and especially young people
known sources of bias, such as references
of color, do not become unfairly burdened and
to “gang affiliation” since youth of color were
stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice
disproportionately characterized as gang affiliates
system for engaging in non-violent conduct that
often simply due to where they lived.
poses no threat of harm to persons or property.”96
•	 Following a two-year study conducted in •	 Similarly, a review of the RAI used in consideration
of pretrial release in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial
partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice,
District helped reduce sources of racial bias. Three
Manhattan’s District Attorney’s office learned that
of the nine indicators in the instrument were
its plea guidelines emphasizing prior arrests
found to be correlated with race, but were not
created racial disparities in plea offers. The office
significant predictors of pretrial offending or
will conduct implicit bias training for its assistant
failure to appear in court. As a result, these factors
prosecutors, and is being urged to revise its policy
were removed from the instrument.
of tying plea offers to arrest histories.97

20 The Sentencing Project


officers disagree) that police treat whites better
than people of color, and agree that police are more
likely to use force against people of color than
against whites.102 Yet a diverse police force alone
is unlikely to remedy community-police relations.
Studies have reached conflicting conclusions
about the relationship between the race of officers
and their likelihood of having used force.103

2. Bias in Discretion

In its comprehensive review of implicit racial bias
research, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race
and Ethnicity concludes that “education efforts aimed
at raising awareness about implicit bias can help debias
individuals.”98 Their review describes a number of •	 Some jurisdictions in the United States and abroad
offer improved models for preventing excessive
debiasing strategies shown to reduce implicit racial bias
use of force, investigating claims, and ensuring
in both experimental and non-experimental settings.
police accountability. Connecticut, Maryland, and
These include providing exposure to counter-stereotypic
Wisconsin have passed laws requiring  special
imagery, increasing inter-racial contact and diversity,
prosecutors to handle cases of police misconduct
and monitoring outcomes to increase accountability.
in order to address the potential conflict of interest
This section examines recent proposals to reduce bias
when local district attorneys prosecute the law
in policing, as well as how jurisdictions have mitigated
enforcement officials with whom they work daily.104
the negative impact of implicit bias in later stages of
France and Spain have similar laws, requiring
the justice system by establishing objective guidelines
independent investigating magistrates for cases
to standardize decision making, ensuring that decisioninvolving police use of deadly force.105 Given the
makers have access to the most complete information
considerable leeway given to police on when to use
possible, and providing training on racial bias.
force within the “objectively reasonable” standard
Address bias and excessive use of force
set forth by the Supreme Court,106 it is important
among police officers:
to create clear guidelines that curb excessive use
Connecticut; Maryland; Wisconsin; Austin, TX
of force. Germany, for example, provides strict
limitations on the use of force for petty offenses.107
In addition to reducing excessive police contact,
A case study of the Austin Police Department
police departments must also improve the nature of
recommends a use of force policy that contains
this contact to curb excessive use of force. Because
clear deadly force and less-lethal force guidelines,
of their training and experience, police officers are
extensive police training in all force options, and
less likely than the general public to mistakenly shoot
an early warning system for identifying problem
at black unarmed suspects in experimental settings,
officers.108 Once officers are deemed unqualified by
and exhibit less bias in their response times.99 But it is
their commanders, a process should be established
unclear how these lab-based outcomes translate to realto remove problem officers and prevent those
world scenarios. Simulation studies have underscored
with a history of misconduct from transferring
the challenges in using officer training  – especially
to other departments.109 In addition, an
exposure to counter-stereotypic imagery – to reduce
independent civilian review board with the power
racial bias in police officers’ response times.100 Research
to discipline officers should be established to
on many recently proposed reforms to reduce racial
oversee complaints filed by the public.
bias in policing has been limited and mixed:
•	 Many police departments have struggled to •	 There is currently growing interest in the potential
for body cameras worn by officers to reduce their
recruit and retain persons of color in their
excessive use of force and increase accountability.
ranks. Underrepresentation of people of color
Following the fatal police shooting in Ferguson,
presents a barrier to building relationships with the
Missouri, President Obama has pledged to allocate
communities they are sworn to serve.101 Survey data
$75 million to the purchase of 50,000 body
suggest that black officers may be more mindful
cameras.110 Research on the effectiveness of these
than white officers of biased policing. A majority
cameras, however, is both limited and mixed.
of black officers believe (and a majority of white

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 21

2. Bias in Discretion

that minimized staff inconsistencies, while
There is some evidence that body cameras can
encouraging youth sanctions other than secure
reduce use of force by police, assaults on officers,
detention. The changes resulted in an immediate
and citizen complaints, by changing either police
reduction in the detention population and were part
or citizen behavior.111 Yet as the non-indictment of
of a broader effort that largely eliminated the racial
NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for Eric Garner’s
disparity in the proportion of referrals resulting in
death suggests, video footage of excessive police
force does not ensure accountability. Meanwhile, this
technology has raised concerns that body cameras
may intrude on citizen privacy and exacerbate •	 When making bail determinations in Saint Louis
County, Minnesota, judges did not have access
trauma among victims of crimes and accidents. Yet
to a defendant’s bail report, which contained
a number of civil rights organizations, including
important personal background information,
the American Civil Liberties Union, have generally
and relied exclusively on the name of the person
expressed support for the use of body cameras,
arrested, the current charge, and the person’s
provided that they are governed by strict privacy
prior criminal history in the state. Local officials
policies.112 This year, Los Angeles will become the
perceived the system to be biased against people of
first major U.S. city to implement body camera
color, releasing whites on their own recognizance
technology widely.113
twice as often as other racial groups, and imposing
money bond on African Americans more often
Eliminate racial disparities in charging
and in a greater amount than on whites. Racial
Milwaukee County, WI; Mecklenburg County, NC; San Diego
disparities remained even when controlling for
County, CA
offense severity level, number of felony charges,
and the defendant’s criminal history. Changes were
•	 The Vera Institute of Justice’s Prosecution and
made so that in all felony cases, judges only made
Racial Justice program has worked with various
bail determinations once a bail report had been
jurisdictions to reduce unwarranted racial and
provided. The judges also received training on best
ethnic disparities caused by prosecutorial decision
practices in making bail determinations.
making. In Milwaukee, prosecutors previously
filed drug paraphernalia charges against 73% of Address potential bias among jurors:
black suspects but only 59% of white suspects.114 Northern District of Iowa; North Carolina
The prosecutor’s office was able to eliminate
these disparities by reviewing data on outcomes, •	 U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett spends
25 minutes discussing implicit bias with the
stressing diversion to treatment or dismissal,
potential jurors in his court.115 He shows video clips
and requiring attorneys to consult with supervisors
that demonstrate bias in hidden camera situations,
prior to filing such charges.
gives specific instructions on avoiding bias, and asks
Establish objective criteria and guidelines for
jurors to sign a pledge. Although the impact of this
decision making:
approach has not been measured, mock jury studies
Dorchester, MA; Multnomah County, OR; Saint Louis
have shown that increasing the salience of race and
County, MN
making jurors more conscious of their biases reduces
biased decision making.116
•	 In Dorchester, 52% of people of color arrested in a
school zone for a drug crime received an enhanced
•	 North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act enabled
charge, while only 15% of whites received such a
commutation of death sentences based on statistical
charge. Based on these findings, judicial leadership
evidence that race had played a role in sentencing.
worked with police and prosecutors to develop
Four death sentences were commuted to life without
guidelines to more fairly handle school zone
parole. But as a result of divisive state politics on
the issue, the legislature subsequently repealed the
•	 Similarly, Multnomah County instituted a
“sanctions grid” for probation violations
22 The Sentencing Project

Investing in alternatives to incarceration and limiting the
financial outlays required from defendants have helped
to reduce the disadvantage of low-income people of
color in the criminal justice system.

Increase pretrial release:
New Jersey; Cook County, IL

to improve case outcomes for youth of color. The
unit consisted of two paralegals who interviewed
detained youth prior to their custody hearings. The
paralegals helped add a larger social narrative to the
court process by checking on community ties and
stressing to families the importance of attending
the custody hearing.

Establish alternatives to incarceration for
low-income individuals:

Berks County, PA; Illinois; Rock County, WI; Union County,

in pretrial release decisions.

•	 Appointed counsel is under-resourced and often
struggles to gather information supporting
pretrial release to present at custody or bail
hearings. The Cook County Public Defender’s Office
established the Detention Response Unit in 1996

3. Economic Disadvantages

•	 In 2014, New Jersey reformed its bail system to NC
emphasize risk assessment over monetary •	 In Berks County, PA, officials were able to reduce
bail in pretrial release decisions. Previously, all
the number of youth in secure detention – most
defendants were detained based on their ability
of whom were youth of color – by 67% between
to post bail, regardless of their risk level. The
2007 and 2012 in part by increasing reliance on
new set of laws, which includes a constitutional
alternatives. These included non-secure shelters
amendment approved by voters, expands judicial
for youth who cannot safely return home but did
discretion to set the terms of pretrial release and
not require locked detention, evening reporting
provides judges with broader nonmonetary
centers, electronic monitoring, and expanded use
pretrial release options. Judges may now release
of evidence-based treatment programs. Because
lower-risk indigent individuals who cannot afford
many of these youth had committed technical
bail and may deny pretrial release for high-risk
violations of their probation terms, this broader
individuals.117 All defendants will undergo a risk
range of alternatives made it possible to keep them
assessment before their bail hearing and monetary
out of detention without harming public safety.
bail may only be set if it is determined that no other
conditions of release will assure their appearance in •	 In 2004, Illinois expanded alternative community
court. In addition, the legislation established time
programs and decreased reliance on detention.
limits to ensure more speedy trials and guarantees
By 2007, detentions had been reduced by 44%
defendants the right to counsel at their pretrial
across the state’s four pilot sites. The sites created
detention hearings.118
a wide variety of programs, including Aggression
Replacement Training, Functional Family Therapy,
a community restorative board, teen court, and
In 2014, New Jersey reformed
substance abuse treatment. For every $1 spent on
its bail system to emphasize risk
the programs, $3.55 in incarceration costs were
assessment over monetary bail
•	 Other jurisdictions have reduced the proportion
of youth of color in detention by adopting
graduated sanctions for probation violations.
In Rock County, WI, graduated sanctions and
incentives for probation violators, such as
Aggression Replacement Training and evening
reporting, helped drop the percentage of youth of
color in the total detention population from 71%

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 23

to 30%. Similarly, in Union County, NC, the use
of graduated sanctions for youth who violated
probation helped to decrease the representation of
youth of color in the total detention population by
3. Economic Disadvantages

Offer Spanish language resources:

Maricopa County, AZ; Santa Cruz County, CA

•	 Maricopa County significantly improved outcomes
in the Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Court, by
creating a separate Spanish-speaking court. The
court achieved an 88% graduation rate, higher than
the 66% rate for participants in English-speaking

In 2004, Illinois expanded alternative
community programs and decreased
reliance on detention.

24 The Sentencing Project

DUI court. Graduates of the DUI court have to
complete at least 20 weeks of treatment, education,
and counseling, reach 6 months of sobriety, and be
attending school or employed.
•	 Santa Cruz County’s probation department
addressed difficulties of communicating with
Latino families by increasing the number of
Spanish-speaking staff to match the proportion of
such youth at the detention center. The department
also doubled the number of youth diversions by
creating programs to meet the needs of Latino
youth, designing programs to meet regional needs
across the county, and expanding bilingual staff
at a local community provider. Overall, these efforts
helped lead to a 25% reduction in the average
daily detention population, and a simultaneous
22% reduction in the Latino representation in the
juvenile hall population.

While the criminal justice system is not well-positioned
to address the socioeconomic inequality that contributes
to differential crime rates, it should not aggravate
these conditions.119 Advocates have had success in
downsizing and redirecting criminal justice spending,
increasing utilization of existing resources, and limiting
the collateral consequences of criminal convictions.

Expand and maximize utilization of available
community resources:
California; Pima County, AZ

of 1964 if they uniformly administer “a criminal
background check that disproportionately excludes
people of a particular race, national origin, or other
protected characteristic” when it is not related to
the job or necessary for the business.121 To reduce
barriers to employment for those with criminal
records, many jurisdictions have passed laws or
issued administrative orders to “Ban the Box” – or
remove the question about conviction history from
initial job applications and delay a background check
until later in the hiring process.122 Twelve states –
including Maryland, Illinois, and California – and 60
cities – including Atlanta and New York City – have
passed these reforms. More broadly, 41 states and
the District of Columbia have enacted some form
of legislation to reduce collateral consequences.123
•	 Advocates have been urging states to end denial
of federal cash assistance and food stamp
benefits for people convicted in state or federal
courts of felony drug offenses. These bans
primarily affect low-income women of color.124
The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work
Opportunity Reconciliation Act that created the
ban also permitted states to opt out or modify its
terms. To date, 13 states have fully opted out of the
cash assistance ban and nine from the food stamp
ban. Others have opted out in part through smaller
changes, such as making access dependent on type
of drug offense or enrollment in treatment.

•	 California voters in November 2014 approved
Proposition 47, which reclassifies a number of lowlevel offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.120
This allows 10,000 incarcerated individuals to
petition to have their sentences reduced. Moreover, a
significant portion of projected state prison savings
each year will be allocated to preventing crime
from happening in the first place. This includes
investments in mental health and substance
abuse treatment, programs to reduce school
truancy and prevent dropouts, and support for
victim services.
•	 In recent years, advocates have worked to address
housing insecurity for persons with convictions.
•	 Officials and community groups in Pima
In 2011, the federal Department of Housing and
County, AZ, helped to increase the utilization of
Urban Development began urging public housing
community resources by creating geocoded maps
agencies to relax admission policies in an effort
to identify communities with high proportions of
to help people released from prison reunite with
youth referred to detention and then developing
their families.125 Litigation underway in Kansas City
community asset maps to find available program
and New York City strives to address exclusionary
services for at-risk youth in those areas.
housing policies in the private rental market.126 
Numerous states and localities

•	 A criminal record is a strong barrier to
employment, and therefore to successful reentry.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission warned employers that they may
be liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

•	 Since 1997, 23 states, including New Mexico,
Rhode Island, and Virginia, have enacted reforms
to expand voter eligibility for people with felony
convictions.127 Felony disenfranchisement policies
have had a disproportionate impact on communities
of color, with black adults four times more likely to
lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult

4. Excessive Punishment

Limit the collateral consequences of criminal

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 25

both laudable goals, but with potentially very different
outcomes. Just as it is possible to reduce the absolute
level of imprisonment without reducing racial disparity
(for example, if both white and black incarceration rates
were equally reduced), so is it possible to reduce racial
All key decision-makers and interested parties – disparities without affecting incarceration levels (for
policymakers, practitioners, community groups, and example, if the white incarceration rate rose while the
formerly incarcerated individuals – should be included in black incarceration rate remained constant).
the development and implementation of reforms. This
A recent study of the juvenile justice system illustrates
collective approach can identify sources of disparity,
these dynamics. The National Council on Crime and
Delinquency analyzed data
weigh their costs, carry out
from five geographically
implementation, and establish
A key question is whether an initiative
diverse counties engaged in
monitoring and accountability
should be designed to reduce the total
juvenile justice reform in the
practices. Institutionalizing
number of people of color in the justice period 2002–2012, a period
reforms in this way can also
system (in absolute count or as a rate)
when the number of juveniles
ensure that they are sustainably
or the relative ratio of racial disparity (a
in residential placement
funded and implemented. In
comparison of rates of contact with the nationally declined by about
addition, public education can
justice system).
40%. The study found that
expand demand and support
of the juveniles placed in
for reforms.
secure confinement during this period, the proportion
Analyzing the impact of reforms to address racial who were youth of color increased from 12.4% in 2002
disparity within the justice system requires not only to 22.3% in 2012. While it is troubling that the racial
access to comprehensive data, but also a framework for disparity has increased, there are nonetheless far fewer
measuring success. A key question is whether an initiative African Americans (and whites) behind bars. From the
should be designed to reduce the total number of people perspective of reducing the consequences of criminal
of color in the justice system (in absolute count or as a justice control over people of color, such a development
rate) or the relative ratio of racial disparity (a comparison has been constructive overall.
of rates of contact with the justice system). These are

Policymakers and practitioners can draw on
lessons from these reforms to develop successful
implementation strategies and sound evaluation

26 The Sentencing Project

Despite substantial progress in achieving racial
justice in American society over the past half
century, racial disparities in the criminal justice
system have persisted and worsened in many
respects. Among African American men born just
after World War II, 15% of those without a high
school degree were imprisoned by their mid-30s.130
For those born in the 1970s, 68% were imprisoned
by their mid-30s.
The country has made progress on these issues in recent
years. New York and other large states have significantly
reduced their prison populations131 and the juvenile justice
system has reduced youth confinement and detention by
over 40% since 2001.132 The racial gap in incarceration
rates has begun to narrow133 and police departments in
many cities are increasingly diverse.134 The Garner case
has sensitized many white Americans to problems in the
justice system, with 47% of whites nationwide and half in
New York City stating that the officer should have been
indicted.135 Finally, proper enforcement of the recently
reauthorized Death in Custody Reporting Act can ensure
accurate data on future police use of lethal force.136

But demonstrators have echoed Garner’s final words – “I
can’t breathe” – and the message attributed to Brown
– “hands up, don’t shoot” – in public protests because
there is much left to do.
As proven by the jurisdictions highlighted in this report,
reforms can improve criminal justice outcomes by
targeting the four key causes of racial disparity: disparate
racial impact of laws and policies, racial bias in the
discretion of criminal justice professionals, resource
allocation decisions that disadvantage low-income people,
and policies that exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities.
We must now expand the scale and increase the speed of
these efforts.

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 27








The actual number of police killings was about 45% higher
than the FBI’s tally for the nation’s 105 largest police
departments between 2007 and 2012, see: Barry, R. & Jones,
C. (2014). Hundreds of Police Killings Are Uncounted in
Federal Stats. The Wall Street Journal. Available at: http:// See also:
Fischer-Baum, R. (2014). Nobody Knows How Many
Americans The Police Kill Each Year. FiveThirtyEight Politics.
Available at:; Klinger, D. (2014). On
the Problems and Promise of Research on Lethal Police
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2003-2009 - Statistical Tables. Available at: http://www.bjs.
gov/content/pub/pdf/ard0309st.pdf (p. 6, Tbl. 6). In recent
years, police officers have killed African American teenage
boys at 21 times the rate of their white counterparts,
according to an analysis of the FBI Supplementary Homicide
Report, see: Gabrielson, R., Jones, R., & Sagara, E. (2014).
Deadly Force, in Black and White. ProPublica. Available at:
McKinley, J. & Baker, A. (2014). Grand Jury System, With
Exceptions, Favors the Police in Fatalities. The New York
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Gibbons-Neff, T. (2014). Military Veterans See Deeply
Flawed Police Response in Ferguson. The Washington
Post. Available at:
Goldenberg, S., Pazmino, G., & Paybarah, A. (2014).
Police Union Declares War on de Blasio After Murder of
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com/article/city-hall/2014/12/8558996/police-uniondeclares-war-de-blasio-after-murder-officers. Note that
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see: Federal Bureau of Investigation (2014). FBI Releases
2013 Statistics on Law Enforcement Officers Killed and
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Franklin, T. W. (2013). Sentencing Native Americans in
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The Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, The Creating
Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility Project,

28 The Sentencing Project








& The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
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Epp, C. R., Maynard-Moody, S., & Haider-Markel, D. P. (2014).
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Maciag, M. (2014). Skyrocketing Court Fines Are Major
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archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465/. On the
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new-york/summons-broken-windows-racial-disparitygarner-article-1.1890567. Note that individuals with multiple
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42	 Brame, R., Bushway, S. D., Paternoster, R., & Turner, M.
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46	 National Research Council (2014), note 45 above (pp. 93–4).
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48	 Minton & Golinelli (2014), note 6 above (p. 7, Tbl. 3).
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53	 Smith, E.L. & Cooper, A. (2011). Homicide in the U.S. Known
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30 The Sentencing Project











J.G., & Schulenberg, J.E. (2013). Demographic Subgroup
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Many whites also endorse individualistic rather than
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Attitudes and Relations at the Close of the Twentieth










Century. In Smelser, N. J., Wilson, W. J., & Mitchell, F. (eds.)
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81	 Mauer, M. & McCalmont, V. (2013). A Lifetime of Punishment:
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82	 Durose, M., Cooper, A., & Snyder, H. (2014). Recidivism of
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83	 See for example: Goffman, A. (2014) On the Run: Fugitive
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84	 Ghandnoosh (2014), note 32 above.
85	 Knafo, S. (2014). Change Of Habit: How Seattle Cops
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86	 Bostock, M, & Fessenden, F. (2014). ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Is All
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87	 Press Office of the Mayor of New York City (2014). Mayor
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88	 Bostock & Fessenden (2014), note 86 above.

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 31

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90	 Sayegh, G. (2014). Bratton and de Blasio’s Small Step
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91	 Smiley, D. & Vasquez, M. (2013). Broward, Miami-Dade Work
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92	 Watanabe, T. (2013). LAUSD Issuing Far Fewer Truancy
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93	 Porter, N. & Wright, V. (2011). Cracked Justice.
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94	 Porter & Clemons (2013), note 62 above.
95	 Sebens, S. (2014). Voters Give Nod to Legal Marijuana in
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98	 Staats, C. (2014). State of the Science: Implicit Bias
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99	 See notes 68 and 69 above.
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101	 Dewan, S. (2014). Mostly White Forces in Mostly Black
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102	 Weisburd, D. & Greenspan, R. (2002). Police Attitudes Toward
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32 The Sentencing Project

103	 McElvain, J. & Kposowa, A. (2008). Police Officer
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104	 Congressional Research Service (2014). Special
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108	 Delgado, R. (2011). An Ideal Use of Force Model For
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110	 Office of the Press Secretary (2014). Fact Sheet:
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111	 White, M. (2014). Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras:
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112	 Lovett, I. (2013). In California, a Champion for Police
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113	 Mather, K. & Winton, R. (2014). LAPD’s Plan for 7,000 Body

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114	 Davis, A. J. (2013). In Search of Racial Justice: The Role of
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115	 Kang, J., et al. (2012). Implicit Bias in the Courtroom. UCLA
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116	 Sommers, S. R. & Ellsworth, P. C. (2001). White Juror Bias: An
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117	 American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (2014). ACLUNJ Hails Passage of NJ Bail Reform as Historic Day for Civil
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118	 New Jersey Senate Bill 946 (2014). 216th Session. Available
119	 Criminal justice professionals and lawmakers can also help
to advance effective crime-prevention programs include
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120	 California Secretary of State (2014). Prop 47: Criminal
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121	 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012).
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122	 National Employment Law Project (2015). Ban the Box:
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123	 Subramanian, R., Moreno, R., & Gebreselassie, S. (2014).
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124	 Mauer & McCalmont (2013), note 81 above.
125	 Donovan, S. & Henriquez, S. (2011). Letter to PHA
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126	 Navarro, M. (2014). Lawsuit Says Rental Complex in Queens
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127	 Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony
Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2010. Washington,

D.C.: The Sentencing Project. Available at: http://www.
128	 Chung, J. (2014). Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer.
Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project. Available
129	 For an elaboration of these points, see Mauer, M. &
Ghandnoosh, N. (2014). Incorporating Racial Equity into
Criminal Justice Reform. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing
Project. Available at:
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130	 National Research Council (2014), note 45 above (pp. 67–8).
131	 Mauer, M. & Ghandnoosh, N. (2014). Fewer Prisoners,
Less Crime: A Tale of Three States. Washington, D.C.: The
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pdf; Greene, J. & Mauer, M. (2010). Downscaling Prisons:
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132	 See Sickmund, M., Sladky, T. J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera,
C. (2013). Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in
Residential Placement. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center
for Juvenile Justice. Available at:
133	 Mauer (2009), note 61 above.
134	 Bureau of Justice Statistics (2010). Local Police
Departments, 2007. Available at:
content/pub/pdf/lpd07.pdf (p. 14, Figure 9).
135	 Pew Research Center (2014). Sharp Racial Divisions in
Reactions to Brown, Garner Decisions. Washington, D.C.
Available at:
sharp-racial-divisions-in-reactions-to-brown-garnerdecisions/; Blain, G. (2014). Nearly Two-Thirds of New
Yorkers Believe Officer Daniel Pantaleo Should be Charged
in the Death of Eric Garner: Poll. New York Daily News.
Available at:
136	 Editorial Board (2014). The Country Should Know How
Many People Die in Police Custody. The Washington Post.
Available at:

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System 33

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial
Inequity in the Criminal Justice System
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D.

February 2015

Related publications by The Sentencing Project:

1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel: 202.628.0871
Fax: 202.628.1091

Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for
Punitive Policies (2014)
The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration (2013)
To Build a Better Criminal Justice System: 25 Experts Envision the
Next 25 Years of Reform (2012)
Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual
for Practitioners and Policymakers (2008)

The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. justice system by
promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and
practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.