Judges need help against bias

I t will be no surprise if a legislatively appointed task force finds that poor or black defendants in Mississippi draw harsher sentences than wealthier or white ones.

If that were not the case, Mississippi would be about the only place in the country that could truthfully claim it has a uniform justice system.

As studies have repeatedly shown, racial bias persists in the U.S. criminal justice system, as evidenced by incarceration rates and death sentences that are disproportionately skewed against African-Americans and other people of color.

Economic bias is also a reality. Those who can afford an attorney almost always get off lighter than those who have to depend on overworked and often underprepared public defenders to represent them.

The Sentencing Disparity Task Force — a group of 14 elected officials, lawyers and judges — will presumably quantify how far Mississippi is away from a uniform justice system.

The ultimate result may be the creation of sentencing guidelines, such as those used in the federal system and in many states, that attempt to steer judges toward penalties that are appropriate, depending on the severity of the crime and the previous criminal history of the defendant.

Although a lot of attention is spent on death-penalty cases, those are the only ones in which the punishment is in the hands of the jury. In all other cases, it’s a lone judge deciding whether a convicted defendant should got to jail and for how long.

Judges are like anyone else, victims of their own, sometimes subconscious prejudices. Even if they try to fight them, they’re inclined to be more lenient toward those with whom they have commonalities — including race — than with those they don’t.

Sentencing guidelines are not a panacea. As The Associated Press reported, a 2015 study found that in the federal court system, even with its sentencing guidelines, black defendants are more likely to draw heavier sentences than white defendants for the same crime.

Nevertheless, a guideline system, assuming it is accepted by trial judges in good faith, should at least reduce the disparities.