Cumulative Disadvantage and Racial and Ethnic Disparities in California Felony Sentencing

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Book Chapter

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Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley


This paper examines the extent and sources of racial and ethnic disparities throughout the California criminal justice system from the perspective of cumulative disadvantage theory. Individual offender records from nine counties are analyzed to determine the extent and sources of differences between African-Americans, Latinos, and whites in sentencing outcomes. Disparities are present at nearly every point in the process, including arrests, charges, guilty pleas, jury trials, convictions, and sentences. Consistent with cumulative disadvantage theory, the gap between whites and blacks increases as inmates proceed further along in the criminal justice process. Latinos are also more likely to experience negative criminal justice outcomes than whites, but unlike the growing gap between blacks and whites, the gap between Latinos and whites remains constant throughout the criminal justice system, in line with the concept of continuous, rather than cumulative, disadvantage. Further analysis finds that the disparities are not entirely attributable to differences in legally relevant characteristics. Factors such as the type and number of current conviction charges, prior record, parole or probation status, and pretrial detention do explain some of the observed disparities in sentencing outcomes, but controlling for these variables, African-Americans and Latinos still tend to receive longer prison sentences than whites. This indicates that the observed disadvantages may be attributable, at least in part, to some degree of individual or institutional discrimination. The reduction or elimination racial and ethnic disparity is difficult because inequalities are pervasive throughout the criminal justice system. Participants in multiple agencies, organizations, and jurisdictions must therefore contribute to efforts to reduce the disparities that emerge throughout the justice system. Number of Pages in PDF File: 24

Chapter of

Racial and Ethnic Politics in California, Vol. Three


Bruce Cain
Jaime Regalado
Sandra Bass