Harvard Study: Black People Get Longer Sentences From Republican-Appointed Federal Judges

Racism within the criminal justice system is prevalent and even worse for Black defendants when a Republican president appoints federal judges. President Donald Trump is quickly confirming judges — 90 percent of whom are white and some of whom may even support segregation.

Wendy Vitter, a nominee for federal judgeship in New Orleans, refused to say whether the Supreme Court was right in 1954 to outlaw racial segregation in public schools.

The Trump administration’s judge-appointing speed may widen the racial and gender-sentencing gap observed in a new study by Harvard Law professors Alma Cohen and Crystal S. Yang, which distinctly indicates that a judge’s political affiliation affects sentencing.

“Republican-appointed judges sentence Black defendants to three more months than similar non-Blacks and female defendants to two fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges,” Cohen and Yang state.

“These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”

The findings analyzed data on more than 500,000 defendants — many of which were tried on drug offenses — and 1,400 federal trial judges. The data is based on information between 1999 and 2015.

The authors found “robust disparities” in how Republican and Democratic-appointed judges treat defendants on the basis of their race and gender “despite the random assignment of cases to judges within the same court.” They also found large racial and gender gaps even within specific crimes including drug offenses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR last week he plans to confirm as many of Trump’s lifetime judicial appointments as possible before the end of the year.

Cohen and Yang state that the racial-sentencing gap is especially alarming when “judges are appointed for lifetime terms, particularly among federal district court judges who ‘serve as the final arbiter of more than 99 percent of all federal court litigation.'”

McConnell said that if a Supreme Court vacancy were to happen this year, he would work to fill the seat before the midterm elections.

“It would be a top priority and we would certainly move to confirm, if a vacancy occurred,” he told NPR.

McConnell seeks a judicial branch that will have more jurists like the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative icon who suggested Black students might fare better in a “slower-track school” rather than more competitive colleges.

The study also finds that Republican-appointed Black judges tend to be more lenient with Black defendants than their white colleagues, and judges with “discriminatory attitudes” are most likely in states with higher racial bias.

“More speculatively, our results are consistent with some judges holding discriminatory attitudes given that we find larger disparities among judges who serve in courts from states with higher racial bias, which are disproportionately located in the South,” according to the authors.

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