Young, black people convicted of possessing drugs generally ended up with more severe punishments than white people with drug convictions, according to data from a new state report.
For example, about 42 percent of white juveniles got a “deferred” sentence in drugs cases — one of the most favorable outcomes — compared to only 16 percent of black defendants.
The data is not specific enough to say whether people of different races are being sentenced differently for the exact same crimes; it’s possible that differences in the alleged crimes result in different sentences. Still, reform advocates say the early analysis shows a disparity in how criminal justice affects different demographics and communities.
“Essentially, a deferred judgment is like probation, except if you successfully complete it, the conviction goes away,” said Christie Donner, executive director Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Instead, young black people were sent to youth prison three times more often than white youth for drugs charges, and they were sentenced to probation 50 percent more frequently. The disparity held up even when the analysts controlled for prior criminal history.
“Black kids are more likely to go to the Division of Youth Corrections, less likely to get deferred judgment, across all crime types,” Donner said.
“What’s interesting is that it’s particularly true in drug offenses.”
But there’s still a lot we don’t know.
This data comes from a first-of-its kind state analysis of Colorado’s criminal justice system.
The report is a result of a new law, the CLEAR Act, passed by the state legislature last year. The law requires the state’s Division of Criminal Justice to annually analyze and report data from across the criminal justice system, from police to the courts and parole boards, including analysis by race, ethnicity and gender.
The report categorizes charges only in broad groups, such as “drugs” and “property.”
So, it’s possible that some of the differences in sentencing are happening because young people of different races are being accused of using different types of drugs. Cocaine, for example, carries heavier sentencing requirements than marijuana. We’re also looking at only a year’s data, which means there might be some variability.
Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said that much of the difference must be related to bias.
“I think you know from other studies that blacks and whites use pot and other drugs probably at the same levels,” she said. “I think, again, you go back to the bias — that there is, whether implicit or explicitly, there is a bias in the system that treats people differently.”
The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that white people were far more likely to have ever tried cocaine than black people, but black people were somewhat more likely to have used in the last month.
The “prevalence of drug use is only slightly higher among blacks than whites for some illicit drugs and slightly lower for others; the difference is not substantial,” the National Research Council reported.
The report went far beyond juvenile sentencing, including an examination of arrest rates and outcomes across all types of courts and ages.
First of all, the report’s authors caution that there may be complicating factors, such as whether someone is involved in other cases. T
In district court cases, black defendants “were more likely than the other race/ethnicity categories to receive initial sentences of confinement … and less likely to receive probation or a deferred judgment for Drug, Other, and Violent offenses,” the report states.
In district courts, black defendants sentences sent them to jail or prison 38 percent of the time, compared to 31 percent for whites.
Black defendants “were more likely than the other race/ethnicity categories to receive initial sentences of confinement (community corrections, Department of Corrections and jail) and less likely to receive probation or a deferred judgment for Drug, Other, and Violent offenses,” the report states.
The difference in sentencing could partly be related to how crimes are charged. There are misdemeanor and felony versions of many crimes. How police approach a crime can contribute to how it’s charged, but prosecutors ultimately make these decisions. Bias by jurors and judges can also play a role in sentencing disparities.
The report also points to broader disparities.
Most notably, it found that black people are overrepresented in terms of who is arrested and cited. They made up about 12.4 percent of the arrests and summonses in 2015, and only about 4.2 percent of the state’s population.
In an interview with the Denver Post, George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, described the findings as “a great starting point for the next set of questions,” but said we can’t “draw any conclusions yet.”
For their parts, Maes and Donner want a more universal acknowledgement of the role race plays in the justice system.
“They don’t want to acknowledge that there’s even a problem, so I don’t really know how we start to solve it,” Donner said.
The new report will be published annually.