Black and Hispanic defendants are more likely to be held in jail before trial and more likely to be offered plea bargains that include a prison sentence than whites and Asians charged with the same crimes, according to a two-year study of prosecutions handled by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
The study, by the Vera Institute of Justice, found that race was a significant factor at nearly every stage of criminal prosecutions in Manhattan, from setting bail to negotiating a plea deal to sentencing.
But race was not the sole factor, the study’s authors said. A number of legal considerations were found to be more important in predicting a defendant’s fate, among them the seriousness of the charge and the defendant’s arrest record.
Nicholas Turner, the president of the institute, said researchers could not determine what caused the unequal treatment. “It could be implicit bias,” he said. “It could also be race-neutral policies that end up having a particular disparate effect.”
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said he was concerned that racial disparities had cropped up, especially in the areas of pretrial detention and sentencing. He promised to move forward with “implicit bias” training for his assistants to guard against unconscious prejudices in their decision-making.
“I’m glad to know the information,” Mr. Vance said in an interview. “It’s more important that we find out, ask the question and deal directly with what is uncovered, rather than failing to ask the question at all.”
Funded by the Justice Department, the study grew out of Mr. Vance’s campaign promise to determine whether race played a role in the decisions of prosecutors. In a rare move, his office opened its books to the institute’s analysts for 2010 and 2011 and gave them unfettered access.
The study is one of the largest of its kind to be done in the United States, and its findings echoed what smaller studies had found in places like Milwaukee. The authors examined 222,542 resolved prosecutions over two years, scrutinizing data for all misdemeanors and a selection of felonies, including drug offenses.
The report comes at a time of heightened public debate across the nation about whether the criminal justice system treats people of different races equally. That debate drove the legal battle over the stop-and-frisk program in New York City and has prompted the United States attorney general to order an examination of federal convictions and sentencing guidelines.
“It is consistent with other studies,” Don Stemen, an associate professor of criminology at Loyola University in Chicago, said. “Even when controlling for all these legal factors, race still has an impact.”
One of the starkest disparities emerged in the prosecution of misdemeanor drug crimes like possession of marijuana or cocaine. The study found blacks were 27 percent more likely than whites to receive jail or prison time for misdemeanor drug offenses, while Hispanic defendants were 18 percent more likely to be incarcerated for those crimes.
The study’s authors, Besiki Luka Kutateladze and Nancy R. Andiloro, looked at five key points in a criminal case when prosecutors have significant discretion. They examined the prosecutor’s decisions about which cases to accept, which to dismiss, what to recommend at bail hearings, what plea bargains to offer and what sentences to recommend.
Race turned out to be a statistically significant factor at every stage, save the initial decision to accept cases, the study found.
Blacks were 10 percent more likely than whites to be remanded to jail before trial or to be unable to make bail. Asians fared even better than whites when it came to remaining free before trial: 24 percent of white defendants were detained, but only 14 percent of Asians were held.
Prosecutors were also found to be more likely to offer black and Hispanic defendants plea deals on misdemeanors that included jail time. Forty percent of black defendants and 36 percent of Hispanic defendants were offered plea deals involving incarceration, rather than probation or community service. That ratio for whites was 33 percent, and for Asians, 17 percent.
At sentencing, blacks were also found to be slightly more likely to be sentenced to jail than whites and Latinos, with Asians significantly less likely to receive jail terms.