People of color are drastically overrepresented in Massachusetts state prisons. According to the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission’s analysis of 2014 data, the Commonwealth significantly outpaced national race and ethnicity disparity rates in incarceration, imprisoning Black people at a rate 7.9 times that of White people and Latinx people at 4.9 times that of White people.
In an attempt to better understand the sources of these disparities, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts asked Harvard Law School to research racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal system.
CJPP collected administrative data from several criminal justice agencies, analyzing over 500,000 cases. In our report, we detail the results of our analysis of every stage of the criminal process. Our findings include:
- Black and Latinx people are overrepresented in the criminal system. Although Black people make up only 6.5% of the state’s population, African Americans are the subjects of 17.1% of criminal court cases. Similarly, Latinx people constitute only 8.7% of the Massachusetts population but 18.3% of the cases. By contrast, White people, who make up roughly 74% of the Massachusetts population, account for only 58.7% of cases in the criminal system.
- Black and Latinx people sentenced to incarceration in Massachusetts receive longer sentences than their White counterparts, with Black people receiving sentences that are an average of 168 days longer and Latinx people receiving sentences that are an average of 148 days longer.
- Racial and ethnic differences in the type and severity of initial charge account for over 70 percent of the disparities in sentence length, overshadowing all other factors, including defendants’ criminal history and demographics, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics.
- Among the subset of cases where the person was sentenced to incarceration in a state prison (i.e. cases involving charges that carry the longest potential sentences and where the racial disparity is largest), Black and Latinx people are convicted of charges roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts despite facing more serious initial charges and longer sentences.
- Black and Latinx people charged with drug offenses and weapons offenses are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer incarceration sentences than White people charged with similar offenses. This difference persists after controlling for charge severity and other factors.