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Study: SC Criminal Sentencing Shows Racial Bias


A study by researchers at the UK’s University of Sheffield reveals what many have suspected: there is an unfair racial disparity in criminal sentencing. The researchers focused on sentencing patterns in South Carolina to uncover a bias at the expense of African Americans, who are often sentenced more harshly than white offenders in similar circumstances.

The study, published early last week, analyzed 17,000 criminal sentencings in South Carolina courts. The patterns of disparity were very clear: black offenders charged with petty crimes were more likely to be sent to jail, and were ordered to serve longer sentences, compared to white offenders. The penalty differences were actually harshest when the defendant had no criminal history.

In contrast, black and white defendants with a long rap sheet were sentenced almost identically.

Judicial sentencing discretion in South Carolina

The researchers chose South Carolina because its sentencing guidelines grant judges a lot of flexibility in sentencing criminals. Their hypothesis was based on the “liberation theory,” which assumes that when judges are free from aggravating factors that clearly call for a certain sentence, they are “liberated” and then may exercise their judgment more freely and based on outside factors. Unfortunately, the study indicates that one outside factor may be race.

Unexpectedly, there was an inverse relationship between the defendant’s rap sheet and the racial bias. The likelihood of African American defendants with no criminal history to be sent to jail was increased by 43%, and those with intermediate criminal history were 10% more likely. Black and white offenders with a long list of past crimes, however, were sentenced equally.

The research showed that black defendants who commit serious crimes received shorter sentences than their white counterparts.

Intervention to avoid jail time

Not all crimes warrant jail time. Though discretion in prosecution and sentencing can be abused, it also affords the defendant the opportunity to show that the community would not be better off by spending taxpayer dollars on a jail stay.

There are also state-adopted diversion programs that may help. For example, the Alcohol Education Program allows expungement of the arrest record of eligible first-time offenders who are charged with an alcohol-related offense.

South Carolina has also adopted the Pre-Trial Intervention program to dismiss charges for participants who do not pose a threat to the community. There are a handful of requirements that someone seeking to enter the intervention program must prove, such as that justice will be served by placing him in the program rather than jail, that he is likely to respond to rehabilitation methods, and that he has no significant criminal history. The program requires the participant to pay any applicable restitution to the victim, complete 60 hours of community service, and take part in other lifestyle improvement activities.

Legal representation in South Carolina

Anyone charged with a misdemeanor or felony is encouraged to consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer who understands the potential pitfalls and missteps in the system. As the Sheffield study shows, it may be even more important for minorities charged with a crime to have dedicated legal representation.

If you are facing charges, to schedule a no-charge legal consultation, contact us anytime, day or night.


  1. HNGN, South Carolina Courts Exhibit Massive Racial Bias Against African Americans During Sentencing Decisions, Study Says,
  2. Springer Link, Conditional Race Disparities in Criminal Sentencing: A Test of the Liberation Hypothesis From a Non-Guidelines State,
  3. South Carolina Legislature, South Carolina Code of Laws Title 17 – Criminal Procedures Chapter 22 Intervention Program,

Warning: This Does Not Constitute Legal Advice. Do not rely on the accuracy of this information because laws are subject to change. You are strongly encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney in any legal matter. If you take action in your case without an attorney, it may negatively affect your legal rights.

Disclaimer: This information does not create an attorney-client relationship. The information provided in this document is not legal advice, cannot be cited as legal authority, and cannot replace the advice of an attorney in South Carolina.

Michael Jeffcoat-Jeffcoat Firm founder and attorney



Michael R. Jeffcoat is a criminal defense attorney in South Carolina with over 2 decades of experience, our aggressive criminal defense legal team can help you with misdemeanor and felony offenses. Mr. Jeffcoat strives to keep all his clients informed at all stages of their case.

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