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Report reveals racial disparity in federal sentencing

Federal judges in North Carolina and around the country routinely hand down harsher sentences to African American criminal defendants than they do to white offenders, according to a report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The Demographic Differences in Sentencing report, which was published by the independent judicial branch agency on Nov. 14, revealed that black men get sentences that are 19.1 percent longer on average than white males convicted of the same offenses.

The USSC report provides an insight into how the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker has impacted federal sentencing practices. Federal judges were required to follow guidelines laid down by the USSC prior to the 2005 Booker ruling, but the nation's highest court ruled that these guidelines could be exceeded based on facts that had been established beyond any reasonable doubt in court or admissions made by the defendant. However, the Booker ruling also allows federal appeals judges to modify unreasonably harsh sentences.

Nonprofit advocacy groups like the Sentencing Project have long been critical of the way that African American defendants get treated by police, prosecutors and judges. According to the group, black men in the U.S. are six times more likely to spend time behind bars than white men. Furthermore, one in 10 black men in their 30s are serving a custodial sentence at any given moment.

Reports like the one recently released by the USSC reveal tendencies and trends that many criminal defense attorneys will understand. The U.S. Constitution protects all Americans from overzealous government agents. Therefore, defense attorneys may scrutinize police reports and other relevant documents when representing black or Hispanic clients to ensure that these rights have not been violated in any way.

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