The Dangerous Drug Offender in Federal Court: Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, and Culpability

Cassia Spohn, Lisa L. Sample

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


This study examines the complex relationships among stereotypes about crime, the offender's race/ethnicity, and sentencing decisions. Using data on White, Black, and Hispanic male drug offenders sentenced in three U.S. district courts and a definition of the dangerous drug offender appropriate to the federal sentence system, the authors explore the degree to which stereotypes about dangerous drug offenders influence sentence length. The results reveal that fitting the stereotype of a dangerous federal drug offender (i.e., a male drug trafficker with a prior trafficking conviction who used a weapon to commit the current offense) affected the length of the prison sentence for Black offenders but not for White or Hispanic offenders. Further analysis revealed that this effect was confined to Black offenders convicted of drug offenses involving crack cocaine. The results provide further evidence that the focal concerns guiding judicial decision making may vary depending on the offender's race or ethnicity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-31
Number of pages29
JournalCrime and Delinquency
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2013


  • drug offenders
  • federal sentencing guidelines
  • sentencing disparity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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