updated 11/24/2004 5:03:14 PM ET 2004-11-24T22:03:14

The percentage of minority inmates in U.S. prisons has increased sharply since federal sentencing guidelines took effect 17 years ago, with blacks generally receiving harsher punishments than whites, a federal advisory panel has concluded.

The 15-year study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal judges, examined how well the guidelines had brought uniformity to punishments. It found that while sentencing had become “more certain and predictable,” there were still disparities among races and regions.

The findings come as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the guidelines, which advocates say are critical to achieving fairness in punishments.

The justices could decide as early as next week whether to throw out the system because it allows judges, not juries, to consider factors that can add years to sentences.

“The big unanswered question is do we need to have sentences growing this way,” said Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and expert on sentencing. “Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days of complete unguided judicial discretion.”

Reining in judges
Before the guidelines were created in 1987, judges had wide discretion in issuing sentences. The guidelines give judges a range of possible punishments for a given crime and make it difficult for them to deviate from those boundaries.

According to the study, which was released Tuesday, the average prison sentence today is about 50 months, twice what it was when lawmakers began calling for a uniform sentencing system in 1984, mainly because of the elimination of parole for offenses such as drug trafficking.

The percentage of whites in prison dropped sharply, from nearly 60 percent in 1984 to about 35 percent in 2002, according to the report. It attributed the decrease to a dramatic growth in Hispanics imprisoned on immigration charges, from about 15 percent to 40 percent.

In addition, the gap between sentences for blacks and whites widened. While blacks and whites received average sentences of slightly more than two years in 1984, blacks now stay in prison for about six years, compared to about four years for whites.

The report attributed the disparity in part to harsher mandatory minimum sentences that Congress imposed for drug-related crimes, such as cocaine possession. In 2002, 81 percent of these offenders were black.

Toughest region: the South
The study found harsher punishments generally in the South compared with the Northeast and the West. It concluded that legal differences in the individual cases “explain the vast majority of variation among judges and regions.”

A bigger problem causing sentencing disparities, it said, was plea bargaining. The study said prosecutors offered more lenient punishments than those mandated in the guidelines in as many as a third of cases as incentives for getting guilty pleas.

“There is still work to be done to achieve the ambitious goals of sentencing reform,” the report stated.

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