Racial/Ethnic Threat and Federal Sentencing

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This study examines whether federal sentencing decisions are influenced by the racial/ethnic composition of federal court districts. Multilevel models of individual cases within federal judicial districts show that black defendants receive moderately longer sentences than whites, and that Hispanics and whites receive similar sentences. These race/ethnicity effects on sentence length are found to vary across federal districts, but not as predicted by racial threat theory. In contrast to racial threat predictions, black sentence lengths are not significantly conditioned by the district black population. Contrary to racial threat predictions, Hispanic defendants receive the harshest sentences when they account for the smallest share of the population (1-3 percent) and the most lenient sentences when they make up more sizable shares of district populations (more than 27 percent). Our results indicate that racial threat theory provides an inadequate explanation of how social contexts influence the federal sentencing of blacks and Hispanics.

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