Decomposing Racial Disparities in Prison and Drug Treatment Commitments for Criminal Offenders in California

Published In: The Journal of Legal Studies, v. 43, No. 1, Jan. 2014, p. 155-187

by John MacDonald, Jeremy Arkes, Nancy Nicosia, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula

Read More

Access further information on this document at

This article was published outside of RAND. The full text of the article can be found at the link above.

We assess whether black-white disparities in commitments to prison or diversions to treatment for drug offenders in California can be explained by differences in the characteristics of criminal cases and whether case characteristics are weighed differently by race. We also examine whether the influence of case characteristics changed after California implemented a mandatory prison diversion program for eligible drug offenders. Our results show that black-white disparities in prison commitments are fully explained by criminal case characteristics, but a significant share of the differences in treatment diversions remains unexplained. The unexplained racial disparity in treatment diversions did not change after California implemented mandatory diversion for eligible drug offenders. These findings suggest that case characteristics play a larger role in explaining prison commitments for drug offenders than the discretion of prosecutors and judges. Diversion to treatment appears to be driven more by the discretion of court officials, and racial disparities remain prominent.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation External publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.