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April 18, 2014

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Sentencing study finds disparities you’d expect

But it didn’t delve into why blacks, men in state get more prison time

Blacks get more prison time than whites, and women receive lighter sentences than men, according to a university study of the state’s court system released Tuesday.

The Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, which examined 10,000 felony convictions in Nevada in 2007, found blacks received “significantly higher” minimum and maximum sentences than white defendants.

The study also found that blacks got significantly higher minimum and maximum sentences for drug trafficking than white or Asian defendants, as well as significantly higher minimum and maximum sentences for drunken driving.

Blacks also received higher minimum sentences than whites for grand larceny and conspiracy and higher maximum sentences than whites for grand larceny, conspiracy and burglary.

Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the study’s findings on their surface “raise red flags.”

“The findings are cause for concern and beg important questions about whether race is playing an impermissible part in the way the criminal justice system works,” Peck said. “There is a massive amount of persuasive social science research indicating that institutional racism continues to plague this country’s criminal justice system.”

Peck said he wanted a chance to more thoroughly review the data used in the study before making any further comments.

Matthew C. Leone, who headed the center’s study, said it was a preliminary one that must “be viewed with caution” because the figures don’t take into account the criminal history of the defendants.

“I’m not going to bet the farm on it,” he told members of the state’s Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice during a briefing.

James Austin, a consultant to the commission, said comparisons between sentencing patterns for blacks and whites needed further study. Hispanics, he said, were not singled out and were included with the whites in the sentencing study.

The study found other disparities, including that 18 percent of women convicted of a felony ended up in prison, compared with 37 percent of men.

Men, the study found, received significantly higher minimum and maximum sentences overall.

They received higher minimum and maximum sentences for auto theft, burglary, possession of controlled substances, sexual assault and grand larceny, the study found. Men also received higher maximum sentences for drug trafficking and injury to property.

For grand larceny, men received an average minimum term of slightly more than eight months compared with six months for women. The maximum term for grand larceny for men was about 27 months, to about 22 months for women.

Leone and James Richardson, president of the Grant Sawyer Center, told the commission part of the disparity between the sexes may be that men generally have had more prior offenses than women, and more women are considered accessories to crimes committed by men and not as culpable.

Commission member Richard Siegel, the ACLU’s president in Nevada, said the panel understands these findings are “first cut” and that the Grant Sawyer Center would report back with more thorough results.

Siegel said he wants to see how Nevada compares with other states when it comes to differences in gender sentencing. Richardson said it’s generally been the case nationwide that women receive lighter sentences than men.

Leone said the study also showed that Nevada, once believed to have some of the toughest laws on marijuana, now has the most liberal when compared with four other states of similar size and characteristics.

Possession of marijuana of less than one ounce in Nevada is a misdemeanor with a $600 fine. In Arizona, the penalty is 1-18 months in prison; New Mexico, 18 months; Oregon 1-10 years and Utah, a misdemeanor with a one year term.

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