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Racial Disparities in Death Penalty Sentencing

Racial disparities in sentencing have been a longstanding concern within the criminal justice system. Ethnic equality debates have arisen on the grounds that the different ethnic and racial groups do not receive equality due to their statuses affecting the judicial decisions. It is important to acknowledge the impact of race in court cases because it aids in making the justice system fairer. Disparities have further implications than a single case, impacting people’s judgment on how fair justice is and trust the judicial system. It is imperative to appreciate the politics of the police force in order to introduce programs that result in an equitable justice system. After the Furman, a series of changes were made to the way people were sentenced by their fellow countrymen, which aimed at correcting racial biases and the arbitrary application of death penalties as practiced under the previous regime. This can serve as a basis for determining the extent to which reforms have been successful in addressing racial discrimination in federal death sentences.

The empirical research has also examined sentencing; for example, a wide-scale study carried out by the American Bar Association shows no significant disparity in sentencing outcomes between black and white judges. Many times, these research works take into consideration such demographic attributes as the case and the defendant’s race in an attempt to show that the judge’s decision is chiefly based on legal reviews despite his/her color (ABA, 2023). Supporters of this point out that judges receive thorough legal education, and they decide cases based on impartial application of jurisprudence regardless of race.

Many researches over the years have repeatedly shown an inconsistency in the sentencing outcome because of a judge’s race. For example, the study done by the Sentencing Project shows that black and white judges impose remarkably different sentencing terms on criminals. Supporters of this reasoning argue that both implicit prejudices and systematic issues contribute to determining judicial choices. Sentence disparities among races are probably an outcome of the unconscious impact that culturally based implicit biasing has on judges themselves. Therefore, Jennifer Eberhardt is a psychologist MacArthur fellow who conducted some research revealing how subconsciously racial biases influence decisions made within the criminal justice system (Eberhardt, 2020). As demonstrated by Eberhardt’s research, there must be increased attention as well as measures adopted to curb these implicit biases that could result in differential sentencing.

Furman era contains important stages in deciding whether the death penalty should be enforced. The process involves the first step, known as charging and indictment, whereby prosecutors set a threshold level on which basis they can seek capital punishment in cases deemed severe enough. Subsequent to that is the stage of jury selection, where the importance of a neutral jury cannot be overstated on the road to achieving a just resolution in the disputation. The jury deliberates aggravating and mitigating factors after passing on a verdict or convicting in the guilt stage to arrive at an appropriate punishment (Jouet, 2021). Lastly, a final appellant ensures that there are no mistakes and any possible violation of the constitution, after which a person is given the death penalty.

The supposed changes towards overcoming racial differences in the federal capital case have not overcome such issues. The 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision aimed at eliminating racism while sentencing convicts for capital punishment. On the other hand, the imposition of the death penalty by guided statutes has, however, not eliminated the racial differences. Some recent research, e.g., from the Death Penalty Information Center, shows that people of color – especially black people – are more often sentenced to death than white people (Jouet, 2021). This brings questions about the power of reform to remove the general problems and provide unbiased death sentences.

The studies and data constantly indicate racial disparity when it comes to capital punishment imposition, which raises questions regarding justice and equal application of justice by the criminal justice system. The statistical analyses demonstrate that the majority of death row inmates are people from minority groups, especially Black people. However, this age distribution slant causes concerns about whether such sentencing can be fair and objective. Lastly, special case studies reveal overt cases of racial bias as far as the imposition of death penalties is concerned (Jouet, 2021). There have been a number of occasions where individuals belonging to racially disenfranchised backgrounds have been punished more severely than their white peers for the same convictions. Such case-specific analyses outline concrete implications of racial injustice and thus underline a necessity to address these issues with due account being taken for systemic reforms that will guarantee equality before the law.

Arguments supporting the fact that systemic factors are behind the racial disparity in death penalty sentencing make a strong case beyond individual cases. Socioeconomic factors will be discussed, and it is noted that people with low earnings may experience difficulty in having quality legal representations, and they influence sentencing outcomes. The interplay between race and socioeconomic status compounds discrimination, where at-risk populations endure inequitable treatment in the criminal justice sector. Another piece of evidence comes from the thorough analysis of the policy, which contributes racially different people to the criminal justice system (Johnson et al., 2021). Over the years, several punishment policies, such as mandatory minimum sentencing and three strikes laws, among others, have resulted in biased sentencing among different racial groups. The systematic bias on this point leads to a core question of principle as relates to the legitimacy of such a legal system, which has been raised. Reform should be directed at eliminating racism.

American Bar Association research shows no difference in the sentencing results considering the race of judges. Such findings usually emphasize the significance of individual case facts, implying that judges with or without any particular race have a concern for law and evidence in reaching decisions. However, counterarguments suggest that the harshness of the crime, the prior criminal records of the perpetrator, and the peculiar features of every specific case are much more critical than the color of the judge’s skin. Also, studies examining judge fidelity to legal criteria regardless of race add to this argument. This evidence shows that judges are consistent in sentencing because they have sworn to ensure that the rule of law prevails (Johnson et al., 2021). According to this logic, although prejudice exists even within the judiciary, it goes beyond race because legal training, experience, and commitment to the tenets of justice drive the judges instead of racism.

Proponents of this opposing viewpoint also focus on legal reforms and initiatives targeting reducing racial disparities. The passage of legislative acts aimed at reducing prejudices in sentencing, including the adoption of the sentencing guidelines and reconsideration of mandatory minimalism, is an illustration of striving for fairness within today’s society. In the same manner, there are some judicial training programs on cultural competency and bias awareness that aim towards sensitization of possible prejudices in relation to other groups (Kader et al., 2022). Such are major tactics involved and measures taken as a systematic approach towards eroding disparities in criminal sentencing outcomes.

Supporters can also provide prominent trials that show discrimination by race in death penalty sentencing. As an instance, there is Julius Jones’ story, an African American from Oklahoma sentenced to death whose sentencing attracted much criticism due to alleged system bias. The advocates argue that the all-white jury convicted Jones, and they charge the prosecutor with prejudice against Jones. Such an example shows the direct relation between the racial components and death penalty issues in this case. Public perceptions and even advocacy efforts supporting non-discriminating sentencing can further support the existence of discrimination in death penalty sentencing (Smith, 2021). Raised awareness brings racial prejudice and civil disturbances over the alleged inequalities of justice, such as street protests and civil rights actions, showing some imperfections in the sentencing mechanism. For instance, some organizations, such as the Equal Justice Initiative, are vocal about racial bias in sentencing for those accused of murder.

On their side, the counterarguments give a few examples of racial bias correction on the death penalty. For example, when fresh evidence led to the release of wrongly convicted persons as an indication that the system might auto-correct. Finally, an evaluation of recent reforms, including a careful examination of prosecutorial behavior and legality, is made in order to reduce the risk of bias at this point. Nevertheless, such hurdles highlight a resolve to rectify past injustices based on a more just death penalty scheme (Kader et al., 2022). These problems continue to be the subject of debate, demonstrating that these fights against racial disparities persist in capital sentencing.

In conclusion, it is difficult and complex to debate the issue of racism disparity in death-related penalties. Some people agree with this argument, while others reject it, indicating measures undertaken through the reform of laws and public awareness programs to counter discrimination. Concerning Furman and the modified aspects of federal capital sentencing procedures, racism is still there. High-profile cases involving racial bias attract more public attention, resulting in activism. A glance at changes that show up in the way the justice system or correctional measures are adopted, as well as other reforms. Indeed, there must be persevering efforts towards just penalty through public awareness and community commitment.


ABA. (2023). A new report on the profession focuses on judicial demographics.

Eberhardt, J. L. (2020). Biased: Uncovering the hidden prejudice that shapes what we see, think, and do. Penguin.

Johnson, B. D., Spohn, C., & Kimchi, A. (2021). Life lessons: Examining sources of racial and ethnic disparity in federal life without parole sentences. Criminology59(4), 704–737.

Jouet, M. (2021). A Lost Chapter in Death Penalty History: Furman v Georgia, Albert Camus, and the Normative Challenge to Capital Punishment. Am. J. Crim. L.49, 119.

Kader, F., Đoàn, L. N., Lee, M., Chin, M. K., Kwon, S. C., & Stella, S. Y. (2022). Disaggregating race/ethnicity data categories: Criticisms, dangers, and opposing viewpoints. Health Affairs Forefront.

Smith, J. C. (2021). From a murder charge to requests to commute his execution, a timeline of Julius Jones’ case. The Oklahoman.


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