Scientific research used to support precluding consideration of bald arrest records at sentencing

The Third Circuit found plain error in a sentencing court relying on a record of past arrests (without a description of the conduct purportedly leading to arrest) in United States v. Mateo-Medina. The prohibition on using bald arrest records had been decided back in 2009. The interesting twist in Mateo-Medina is the Court’s citation to research since their decision that reinforced their earlier ruling. The research cited had found socioeconomic factors and implicit bias likely impacted arrest rates. The research citations included:

  1. The Sentencing Project, Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System (August 2013): finding indicators that police were more likely to arrest people of color due to implicit bias, e.g., unconscious assumptions associating African Americans with violence and crime. (Report available here)
  2. Ojmarrh Mitchell & Michael S. Caudy, Examining Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests, JUSTICE QUARTERLY (Jan. 2013): An empirical study that analyzed 13 years’ worth of data on race, socioeconomic factors, drug use, and drug arrests that found discrepancies between drug arrest rates for African Americans and white individuals could not be explained with a difference in the extent of drug use between the two groups. Residing in an inner city neighborhood actually accounted for more of the disparity in arrests rather than rates of drug use or the manner of drug use. (Article available here)

The concern that arrests reflect implicit bias seems justifiable. The law should not countenance punishing individuals more harshly based on racial stereotypes. The socioeconomic factor of residing in an inner city, however, is a more novel concept. I would be curious to see if this creeps into other criminal procedure areas besides sentencing, such as probable cause determinations. If it is unreasonable for a judge to make assumptions based on arrest records, which may unfairly target inner city residents, might it not also be unreasonable for a police officer to make assumptions about criminal activity in an inner city area? And, does this research shed doubt on the concept of “high crime” areas in inner cities?


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