Excerpted From: Ryan D. King, Kecia R. Johnson and Kelly McGeever, Demography of the Legal Profession and Racial Disparities in Sentencing, 44 Law and Society Review 1 (March, 2010) (19 Footnotes/References) (Full Document)

KingJohnsonMcGeever.jpegThe 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.

With the legal profession now more racially and ethnically diverse than at any point in U.S. history, a seemingly important question for the study of law and society is whether this demographic change has consequences for the administration of justice. Yet surprisingly little research to date has examined this issue. The sociolegal literature is well stocked with introspective studies about the changing nature of the legal profession and the transformation of legal practice. In addition, research continuously documents demographic changes with respect to race and gender, and prior work examines the implications of racial diversity for law school education. As such, the literature is replete with studies of demographic change and stratification in the legal profession, but researchers know very little about the implications of a racially diverse bar for dispute resolution and criminal case dispositions.

The dearth of research on this issue is symptomatic of a more general paucity of empirical work on the consequences of historically underprivileged groups attaining positions of power. As Cohen and Huffman suggest, research to date has been mostly silent on a “provocative and inherently sociological question: What happens to the status of a subordinate group when some of its members attain positions from which they might reduce inequality?” In this vein, Cohen and Huffman show that the gender wage gap decreases as the proportion of women in management in a local industry increases. Their conclusion is congruent with a burgeoning body of work on gender and the legal profession that suggests women are more apt than men to fill law firm vacancies with other women. Hence, there is mounting evidence that the gender composition of the workforce attenuates gender discrimination in wages and mobility, yet researchers know little about the implications of the racial composition of professions for a range of outcomes, including racial disparities in criminal punishment.

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Finally, we believe the findings from this research inform the larger literature on race and punishment. For instance, future work might look at other stages of criminal processing to determine whether the demographics of the local legal profession have explanatory power. We would expect comparable effects for the decision to charge, plea negotiations, pretrial detention, and the use of peremptory challenges to exclude black jurors. Future work might also investigate whether the demographics of the legal profession affect perceptions of fairness, which has been suggested in prior work. This is an important question given the purported association between perceptions of fairness and compliance with law. In addition, a long line of empirical work has investigated temporal and spatial variation in rates of criminal punishment, use of the death penalty, racial disparities in incarceration rates, and related topics. Among the rather stable correlates of punishment has been the racial composition of the geographic area, namely the state. To our knowledge this line of work has not systematically incorporated measures associated with the legal profession, such as the proportion of black attorneys. One hypothesis stemming from our argument is that states with more blacks per capita in the legal profession would have smaller racial disparities in state prisons and lower racial disparities in the use of capital punishment. A related argument might be advanced for other types of social control as well. For instance, the demography of the psychiatric profession may have consequences for racial disparities in mental health facility commitments. These represent but a sampling of questions and issues that logically extend from our argument. We see this as a fruitful line of scholarship, and one that informs a larger and consequential set of questions about the implications of a demographically changing legal profession for the administration of justice.

Ryan D. King is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Kecia R. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Kelly McGeever is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY.