Level Down, Not Up, With Prison Sentences

By Chandra Bozelko

March 15, 2019 5 min read

Lately, we've spent most of our lives living in a white privilege paradise.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort got what many people think was lenient punishment, while a black defendant was sentenced by the same judge last year to 40 years for selling methamphetamine. Alt-right white boy Jacob Wohl filed a police report about a death threat he allegedly sent to himself, while sidelined actor Jussie Smollett faced 16 felony allegations of setting up a similar schema of self-harm. Someone with only one degree of separation from the Olsen twins — actress Lori Loughlin — allegedly bribed her daughters into a private college, while black women do time for getting their children registered in better public school districts.

All of these arraignments, sentencings and comparisons resurrect the question of how we can achieve equality in a system that has perpetuated inequities for so long.

From comments on Twitter to proclamations from presidential candidates, I gather that many people want to even out proven racial disparities in the prison system by packing in more white defendants for longer.

That's the wrong way to approach our nation's mass incarceration. Instead, we need to reduce and alleviate punishments for people of color.

Racial disparities are real. In 2017, the U.S. Sentencing Commission published a report that found, on average, black defendants received sentences that were nearly 20 percent longer than those of their white counterparts in the federal system.

Earlier that same year, the commission released another study, this time on mandatory minimums, and revealed that it was white defendants who had the highest average sentence for those convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, not black defendants.

When the commission compared the percentages of black and white defendants who were similarly sentenced to a mandatory minimum term for the same offense in fiscal year 2016, it found that 73.2 percent of black defendants were stuck with that mandatory minimum sentence whereas 70 percent of white defendants were.

The difference between the percentages of black and white defendants — 3.2 percent — was much lower in FY 2016 than it was in FY 2010, when the difference was 11.6 percent, with blacks more likely to be sentenced under a mandatory minimum statute than whites.

Initially, the Sentencing Commission's study results suggested that courts might have been healing their own racist maladies over time.

But close examination of the data demonstrates that when things evened out this way, they worsened for everyone. Back when the 11.6 percent difference in meting out mandatory minimums was in effect, only 65.1 percent of black defendants were "convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty compared to 53.5 percent of White offenders." More people got severe sentences as the racial disparity was whittled down.

If we continue to equalize things to remove that 3.2 percent difference between black and white defendants on mandatory minimum sentences, we may subject as many as 75 or 80 percent of all federal defendants to unyielding mandatory minimum penalties. That would move us in the wrong direction.

Many people ask, "How else will wealthier white defendants learn if they're not punished severely with prison time?" My problem with that question is that it still focuses on privileged people and what they need.

Instead, we need to pursue what will elevate the disadvantaged — people of color and the indigent — and convince them our systems aren't rigged against them by treating them the same way we do when handling affluent defendants.

Policies of targeted mercy towards poor prisoners and those of color — sentence modifications, clemency initiatives, sentencing reform in general — will even out what privilege has done for the luckier portions of society.

Making black and brown prisoners the explicit beneficiaries of decarceration plans won't reinforce a system that dehumanizes all within it. Whereas, incarcerating more wealthy white people just might.

White defendants don't deserve more sympathy than others. Their alleged crimes, particularly the ones on the national criminal stage right now, are grave and harmful to many, including their own children.

But it's not disputed that, when imprisoned, they'll join less fortunate people in navigating a system of consequences that's more intent on destruction than correction.

Creating equal access to this system of human carnage isn't justice.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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