Latinos are imprisoned more likely than white people for similar crimes

Study dissects racial disparities in Massachusetts criminal justice system

Hispanics-Latinos in Massachusetts prisons receive significantly longer sentences than white people charged with similar offenses, according to a Harvard Law report.

Research shows they’re also more likely than White people to get arrested and convicted on drug and weapons charges.

In the yearslong study, researchers found that racial disparities in the length of sentences are driven largely by the fact that Latino and Black defendants tend to face more serious initial charges than white defendants. That puts Latino and Black defendants at risk of harsher punishments and can influence their decisions in plea negotiations.


In “Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System”, researchers write: “The penalty in incarceration length is largest for drug and weapons charges, offenses that carry longstanding racialized stigmas. We believe that this evidence is consistent with racially disparate initial charging practices leading to weaker initial positions in the plea bargaining process for Black defendants, which then translate into longer incarceration sentences for similar offenses.”

“People of color are overrepresented across all stages of the criminal system relative to their share of population in the state,” Felix Owusu, a research fellow at the university’s Criminal Justice Policy Program and an author of the report, told The Harvard Gazette. “The report speaks to the need to consider policies outside of the courts entirely, such as how we structure our communities, economically, socially, how we police our communities, and what kinds of activities to criminalize at all,” said Owusu.

Here are some the key findings:

  •  Latinx people are over-represented, making up 8.7% of the Massachusetts population but 18.3% of the cases.
  • A report on the Boston Police Department from 2007 to 2010 found that Hispanics-Latinos — who represent 12% of the city’s population — accounted for 18% of people interrogated, stopped, frisked, or searched.
  • Hispanics-Latinos received sentences an average of 148 days longer than their White counterparts.

“The report reveals how institutional racism permeates the whole criminal justice system and ends up playing a big role in the racial disparities in incarceration rates in the state,” Brook Hopkins, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program, told The Harvard Gazette. “It’s not just disparate treatment by police, prosecutors, or judges once somebody is in the system. There is also a legislative piece.”

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