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Does Racial Balance in Workforce Representation Yield Equal Justice? Race Relations of Sentencing in Federal Court Organizations


  • * The entire review process of this article was managed by an Associate Editor of Law & Society Review. Support for this research was provided by the W. E. B. DuBois Fellowship from the National Institute of Justice (Grant No. 2006-IJ-CX-0009). The opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this presentation are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.

Please address correspondence to Geoff Ward, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine, SE II Room 2317, Irvine, CA 92697; e-mail:


Increasing racial and ethnic group representation in justice-related occupations is considered a potential remedy to racial inequality in justice administration, including sentencing disparity. Studies to date yield little evidence of such an effect; however, research limitations may account for the mixed and limited evidence of the significance of justice workforce racial diversity. Specifically, few studies consider group-level dynamics of race and representation, thus failing to contextualize racial group power relations in justice administration. To consider these contextual dynamics we combine court organizational and case-level data from 89 federal districts and use hierarchical models to assess whether variably “representative” work groups relate to district-level differences in sentencing. Using district-specific indexes of population and work group dissimilarity to define representation, we find no relationships between black judge representation and sentencing in general across districts, but that districts with more black representation among prosecutors are significantly less likely to sentence defendants to terms of imprisonment. We also find in districts with increased black representation among prosecutors, and to a lesser degree among judges, that black defendants are less likely to be imprisoned and white defendants are more likely to be imprisoned, with the effect of narrowing black-white disparities in sentencing. Consistent with the “power-threat” perspective, and perhaps “implicit racial bias” research, findings encourage modeling diversity to account for relative racial group power in processes of social control and suggest that racial justice may be moderately advanced by equal representation among authorities.