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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. February 26, 2016

Hillary Clinton says blacks more likely to be arrested, get longer sentences

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been trying to court black voters ahead of the South Carolina Democratic primary by talking about the need to address systemic racism.

In a 30-second commercial, Clinton says: "Something is just fundamentally broken when African-Americans are more likely to be arrested by police and sentenced to longer prison terms for doing the same thing that whites do."

We wanted to see if there's evidence that being black influences whether someone will be arrested and, once convicted, ordered to do more time.


The question plays out against a stark statistic — although African-Americans make up 13 percent of the general population, they account for 36 percent of the inmate population, according to the latest data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Risk of arrest

A heap of evidence shows African-Americans are arrested at higher rates.

The Clinton campaign pointed out a Washington Post blog post (referring to a Brookings Institution piece) that said blacks are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs than whites even though whites are 45 percent more likely to sell drugs than blacks. But the data is from 1980, part of a paper that talks about drug dealing and legitimate self-employment.

The campaign also had fresher data in mind, however, including a USA Today analysis of arrest rates around the country in the wake of the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo. In at least 1,581 of 3,538 police departments, the paper found, blacks were even more likely to be arrested than in Ferguson. Only 173 departments "arrested black people at a rate equal to or lower than other racial groups," the paper reported.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics periodically surveys the public to study police-citizen interactions. Its most recent report in 2008 found that white, black and Hispanic drivers were stopped at similar rates by police. However, black drivers were about three times as likely as white drivers to be searched during a traffic stop. (When a search occurred, evidence was found in only 8.4 percent of the cases, but the report doesn't break that down by race.)

The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, has looked at that breakdown using 2013 profiling data posted in 2014 by Missouri's attorney general's office. It found that when a white driver was stopped in Ferguson, there was a 7 percent chance the car would be searched and a 34 percent chance that something would be found. But when a black driver was stopped, the search rate was significantly higher — 12 percent — and the odds of actually finding contraband were significantly lower (22 percent).

Not only that, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested during a traffic stop.

In a spot check, we found similar patterns in Jefferson City.

It's not just traffic stops. According to a National Research Council report, drug arrest rates have long been higher for blacks, even though data show that blacks are generally no more likely to use drugs than whites and there's little evidence that they sell drugs more often than whites.

Drug arrest rates.JPG

What surveys have shown "is that the levels of self-reported drug sales are about the same for blacks and whites, especially under age 20," said Michael Tonry, professor of law at the University of Minnesota. "But the big differences are that whites are more likely to sell to people they know, and they much more often sell behind closed doors. Blacks sell to people they don't know and in public, which makes them vastly easier to arrest."

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There is also evidence for Clinton’s statement that blacks are more likely to get a stiffer sentence than a white person who has been convicted of the same crime and has the same criminal history.

Studies have shown, for instance, that when prosecutors are deciding on what charges to file against suspects, they tend to select more severe charges for blacks and to use habitual offender laws against blacks more than whites under similar circumstances, particularly when it comes to drug and property crimes, according to a Florida study reported in the journal Criminology.

A 2013 study in the Yale Law Journal reported that black men were nearly twice as likely to be charged with an offense that carried a mandatory minimum sentence than white men facing similar circumstances. When judges have discretion over how long a sentence should be for a specific crime, they tend to select longer sentences for blacks even if they have the same criminal history.

After controlling for the arrest offense, a person's criminal history and other characteristics, sentences for black males were about 10 percent higher than for whites, the study found.

The problem is that as cases work their way through the various steps of the criminal justice system, the degree of the disparity "accumulates at each level," said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project.

"You're a little bit more likely to get arrested if you're a person of color than if you're white. You're a little bit more likely to have a higher bail amount to be released. That's going to make it harder for you to get released. You're a little more likely to get a worse plea deal offer," she said. "As you go through the system, each individual stage makes some small contribution to the overall disparity that we see. But it's going to be significant as you go through the stages."

Tonry of the University of Minnesota agreed that sentences are longer for blacks generally, but "it depends hugely on what crime you're talking about.

"If it's a drug crime that's affected by mandatory minimums, it's vastly longer," Tonry said. "If you're talking about things not subject to mandatory minimums, on average, across the board, blacks probably get sentences that are 5 percent or 10 percent longer than whites do."  

How much of this is due to racism is a matter of debate. The experts say poverty may play a major role, but it can be hard to separate the two. The best studies try to adjust for the fact that minorities tend to be concentrated in poorer areas, where crime tends to be higher and there's a greater demand for police. That can skew the numbers.

And sentences can be longer for poor people under pressure to cop a plea because they can't afford bail or a good lawyer.

Our ruling

Clinton said, "African-Americans are more likely to be arrested by police and sentenced to longer prison terms for doing the same thing that whites do."

The research suggests that when you compare what happens to black and whites who are engaging in the same illegal activity and have the same criminal history, African Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to face tougher charges, and more likely to receive longer sentences than their caucasian counterparts.

We rate the claim as True.


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Hillary Clinton
Presidential candidate


"African-Americans are more likely to be arrested by police and sentenced to longer prison terms for doing the same thing that whites do."


Our Sources

Political TV Ad Archive, Hillary for American commercial, first aired Feb. 8, 2016, accessed Feb. 18, 2016

United States Census Bureau, "Quick Facts, United States," accessed Feb. 22, 2016

U.S. Department of Justice, "Prisoners in 2014," September 2015, accessed Feb. 22, 2016

USA Today, "Racial gap in U.S. arrest rates: 'Staggering disparity," Nov. 19, 2014, accessed Feb. 19, 2016

Washington Post, "White people are more likely to deal drugs, but black people are more likely to get arrested for it," Sept. 30, 2014, accessed Feb. 22, 2016

Brookings Institution, "How the War on Drugs Damages Black Social Mobility," Sept. 30, 2014, accessed Feb. 22, 2016

Attorney General's office of Missouri, "Racial Profile Data/2013," accessed Feb. 22, 2016, "Drug Dealing and Legitimate Self-Employment," 2002, accessed Feb. 22, 2016

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008," October 2011, accessed Feb. 23, 2016

National Academy Press, "Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences," 2014, accessed Feb. 23, 2016

The Yale Law Journal, "Mandatory Sentencing and Racial Disparity: Assessing the Role of Prosecutors and the Effects of Booker," 2013, accessed Feb. 23, 2016

Interview, Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a researcher at the Sentencing Project, Feb. 22, 2016

Interview, Michael Tonry, professor of law, University of Minnesota., "Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System," February, 2015, and "Racial Disparity in Sentencing: A Review of the Literature," accessed Feb. 22, 2016

National Criminal Justice Reference Service, "Thirty Years of Sentencing Reform: The Question for a Racially Neutral Sentencing Process," 2000, accessed Feb. 23, 2016

American Civil Liberties Union, "Racial Disparities in Sentencing," testimony submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights," Oct. 27, 2014, accessed Feb. 19, 2016, "New England NAACP says African-Americans in U.S. are arrested on marijuana charges at more than three times the rate of whites," March 16, 2014, and "Bernie Sanders is right: Police do treat African Americans differently," Aug. 30, 2015

Criminology, "Race, Drugs, and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests," Feb. 2006, accessed Feb. 24, 2016

Stanford Law and Policy Review, "Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States," June 19, 2009, Feb. 24, 2016

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