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

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2014

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

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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.

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