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Sentencing study says race no factor in judges' rulings


Doneghy: `It doesn't matter what race you come from.'

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The color of a defendant's skin does not enter into the equation when Judge Charles Doneghy decides what sentence to impose.

In that respect, Judge Doneghy, Lucas County's only African-American common pleas judge, is similar to his colleagues, whether they are black or white.

According to a recent study, African-American judges, like their white counterparts, consider criminal history and the seriousness of the crime and not the offender's race in determining sentences.

Dr. Darrell Steffensmeier of Penn State University and Dr. Chester L. Britt of Arizona State University compared sentences by 10 black judges with those of 80 white judges in four Pennsylvania counties. More than 39,000 sentences for felony convictions were used for the study, which was published recently in Social Science Quarterly.

The results show black judges are slightly more likely than their white counterparts to send criminals to prison, and both are likely to sentence blacks more harshly than whites.

“There really is not that much significance in the difference of sentences. The big finding is very clear-cut that black and white judges are quite similar, both in the severity of punishment they give out and in the criteria they use,” said Dr. Steffensmeier, a professor of sociology, crime, law, and justice.

In sentencing a defendant, Judge Doneghy, a judge since 1984, said he takes into account the offender's criminal history, the pre-sentence reports compiled by the county probation department, and the nature of the crime.

“I apply that across the board to everyone I sentence,” he said. “It doesn't matter what race you come from.”

The study found that African-American judges were 1.66 times more likely to send offenders to prison than white judges. It determined that black judges order prison sentences that are about a month shorter than white judges.

Dr. Steffensmeier said the disparity among the judges was small.

“The strong similarity of their sentencing practices suggests that black and white judges are governed more by their legal training and legal socialization than by their social background and personal experiences. The job, not so much the individual, makes the judge,” he said.

The study said black judges could be expected to be somewhat less conservative and lenient toward minorities. But that was not the case, Dr. Steffensmeier said.

Judge James Williams of Summit County Common Pleas Court, who is African-American, said he is not surprised by the study's findings.

“I think the process is somewhat institutionalized. Basically there are a lot of factors that go into sentencing. Most justices after a period of time are exposed to all those factors,” said Judge Williams, who is president of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association.

While the number of black judges has increased over the years, the study said they are still outnumbered by white judges.

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