When a judge tasked researchers at Harvard University to explain why Massachusetts’ Black and Latinx incarceration was so high, a four-year study came up with one conclusion: systemic racism.
In 2016, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants asked Harvard researchers to “take a hard look at how we can better fulfill our promise to provide equal justice for every litigant.”
Harvard researchers gathered the raw numbers from nearly every government agency in the state’s criminal justice system, examined the data, and researched the disparate outcomes to reach a conclusion Black and Latino men and women in the state already knew.
Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program found that Blacks and Latinos defendants in the state received more severe charges, harsher sentences, and less favorable outcomes than their white counterparts.
Researchers looked at more than one million cases, from the initial charges through conviction and sentencing and discovered disparities that blew their minds.
“White people make up roughly 74% of the Massachusetts population while accounting for 58.7% of cases in our data,” the study explained. “Meanwhile, Black people make up just 6.5% of the Massachusetts population and account for 17.1% of cases.”
Researchers found those numbers are the result of a criminal justice system that treats Black and Latino people unfairly on every level.
Cops in the state are more likely to stop Black and Latino drivers and search or investigate Black and Latino residents. Police charge Black and Latino suspects with infractions that carry harsher penalties and are less likely to offer a plea deal or pre-trial intervention. Judges also sentence Black and Latino defendants to longer prison sentences.
The study also found the average White felon in the state has committed a more severe crime than the average Black inmate.
Researchers also looked at poverty rates, the family structures of convicted felons, and the neighborhoods they lived in. Eventually, they decided systemic racism was the only explanation.
One thing the researchers could not figure out through the data was why Black people are always initially charged with more serious crimes than white people.
Researchers initially thought it was because Black suspects commit worse crimes than white people, but the data disproved that assumption. They also thought prosecutors may be overzealous when it came to convicting violent cases but the data debunked that theory as well.
When they looked at convictions however, they found Black people were surprisingly less likely to be convicted than white people. Basically, a white person has to have done something egregious to be charged while a Black person just has to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.