Guideline-Based Justice

The Implications for Racial Minorities

by Joan R. Petersilia, Susan Turner


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This report continues work reported in an earlier RAND report, Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, R-2947-NIC, which compared the treatment of white and minority offenders at key decision points, from arrest through release from custody. That report found suggestive evidence of minorities being treated more harshly than white offenders at sentencing. This follow-on study delves deeper into the sentencing process, focusing on the use of classification instruments and formal sentencing and parole guidelines, to assess how they might affect the future sentencing of minority defendants. The study also addresses the issue of recidivism prediction. The authors attempt to predict recidivism using all the factors in the database, and then examine how much predictive accuracy would be lost if they had used only those factors that are not statistically correlated with race. Their findings suggest that the use of guidelines does not overcome racial disparities in sentencing, supervision, and parole decisions. Paradoxically, it may widen them, for reasons that are complex and probably intractable.

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