Demography of the Legal Profession and Racial Disparities in Sentencing


  • This research was supported by a grant from the University at Albany Faculty Research Award Program. We thank Brian Johnson, Scott South, and the editor and anonymous reviewers of the Law & Society Review for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this work. We also thank Chris Galvan, Lauren Porter, Brian Stults, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and Hui-Shien Tsao for their advice and research assistance. Please direct correspondence to Ryan D. King, Department of Sociology, University at Albany, SUNY, 351 Arts and Sciences Building, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12222; e-mail:


The demography of the legal profession has changed rather dramatically in recent decades, yet the consequences of a more racially and ethnically diverse pool of lawyers for the administration of justice have not received significant attention. The present research examines how the racial composition of the local legal profession affects one facet of criminal law: the sentencing of convicted defendants. Building on prior work in the fields of law, stratification, and mobility, we hypothesize that racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing are mitigated where the legal profession is more diverse. In line with this hypothesis, analysis of data from a sample of large urban counties taken between 1990 and 2002 shows that the black-white racial disparity in sentencing attenuates as the number of black attorneys in the county increases, net of the percent black in the county and other possible confounding variables. Comparable results are found for Hispanics. The findings are discussed in the context of a demographically changing legal profession and prior work on racial disparities in the justice system.