Can ethnic disparities in sentencing be taken as evidence of judicial discrimination?



Large research efforts have been directed at the exploration of ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, documenting harsher treatment of minority ethnic defendants, across offence types, criminal justice decisions, and jurisdictions. However, most studies on the topic have relied on observational data, which can only approximate ‘like with like’ comparisons. We use causal diagrams to lay out explicitly the different ways estimates of ethnic disparities in sentencing derived from observational data could be biased. Beyond the commonly acknowledged problem of unobserved case characteristics, we also discuss other less well-known, yet likely more consequential problems: measurement error in the form of racially-determined case characteristics or as a result of disparities within the ‘Whites’ reference group, and selection bias from non-response and missing offenders’ ethnicity data. We apply such causal framework to review findings from two recent studies showing ethnic disparities in custodial sentences imposed at the Crown Court (England and Wales). We also use simulations to recreate the most comprehensive of those studies, and demonstrate how the reported ethnic disparities appear robust to a problem of unobserved case characteristics. We conclude that ethnic disparities observed in the Crown Court are likely reflecting evidence of direct discrimination in sentencing.






Academic articles