Discrimination in Sentencing on the Basis of Afro-Centric Features


For a long time, social scientists have worried about possible racial discrimination in sentencing in the United States. With a prison population that exceeds two million inmates of whom approximately 48% are African American, the worry over the fairness of the sentencing process is understandable. This article is not about discrimination between racial categories as such, but about a related form of discrimination, namely, discrimination on the basis of a person’s Afro-centric features. Section I of the article describes a line of social science research that shows that a person’s Afro-centric features have a strong biasing effect on judgment such that subjects are more willing to attach racial stereotypes, both positive and negative, to persons whom they perceive as having stronger Afro-centric features. The authors theorize that what is happening is that Afro-centric features have come to have potency to influence judgment on their own, irrespective of race. Section II describes what happened when the authors took their research out of the laboratory and examined the sentencing of inmates in the Florida prison system. The same results were found: when inmates who had committed similar crimes and who had similar criminal histories were compared, inmates who had stronger Afro-centric features received longer sentences within their racial category than inmates with less pronounced Afro-centric features. This result is disturbing because it suggests sentences that are unfair, irrational, and unjust.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

September 2004