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Less time for drug crimes cuts criminal justice race disparities

An unfortunate fact about our criminal justice system is that minorities are frequently sentenced to more time for the same crimes as whites. In the U.S., African-Americans, for example, make up 13.3 percent of the population but account for 38 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons, according to federal data.

That means states incarcerate African-Americans at over five times the rate of whites, even though they don't commit five times the number of crimes. African-Americans and other minorities are arrested and convicted more often than their white peers, and also sentenced to longer terms.

What criminal justice reform could reduce these disparities? A reform passed in California four years ago may offer some clues. Proposition 47 reduced some drug-possession felonies to misdemeanors and increased the monetary threshold for felony theft and check forgery.

The result has been a substantial reduction in the sentencing gap between whites and African-Americans, according to a recent study commissioned by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. The study, which was performed by professors from the University of California - Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, also found reductions in jail bookings, cases filed and days spent in pre-trial detention by African-American defendants.

For example, before Prop 47, whites spent an average of 17.4 days in pre-trial detention, while African-Americans spent an average of 33.5 days. After Prop 47, those numbers were reduced to 12 and 18 days, respectively.

What are the roots of sentencing disparities?

According to the study, race-based sentencing disparities between whites and African-Americans can be tied to specific variables. Those include the defendant having another pending case, a prior felony conviction or a previous incarceration. Since African-Americans are arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced unfavorably compared to their white peers, these criminal history variables tend to exacerbate racial differences.

"While we do not address the cumulative effects of these disparities, it is possible to think through how small differences in the conditions of one's case can carry over into...future cases and lead to larger disparities over time that may systematically vary by race," the study authors say.

Prop 47's reduction of many drug-possession crimes from felony to misdemeanor makes a real difference, although there is further to go. After Prop 47, African-Americans' share of bookings in San Francisco dropped from 43 percent to 38. Yet African-Americans make up only 6 percent of San Francisco's population, so there is still much more improvement necessary to end racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

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