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Andy Nguyen
By Andy Nguyen July 7, 2021

Fact-checking a post about racial disparities in sentencing

If Your Time is short

  • The three white, former police officers shown in the post were convicted in separate cases involving the murders of two Black men and a Black boy, and received shorter prison sentences than prosecutors wanted.
  • The Black man shown in the post, Michael Thompson, was sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison for firearms possession by a felon because of past convictions. The conviction for the drug offense led to a 15-year sentence.

A post being shared on Instagram points to racial disparities in the criminal justice system by claiming that white former police officers convicted of killing Black people received significantly shorter prison sentences than a Black man convicted of selling marijuana.

The June 27 post is a collage that shows unidentified mugshots of four people, labeled with a brief description of the crime they committed and the prison sentences they received. Another version of the post on Instagram includes their names. 

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. Instagram is owned by Facebook. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.

The labels on each photo provide little information about the circumstances of the crimes, and in the case of the marijuana conviction, the post leaves out significant context about the charges surrounding the sentence.

Sentencing of white former police officers

One of the mugshots is of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was sentenced June 25 to 22½ years in prison for the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Chauvin was found guilty of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter; he was filmed kneeling on Floyd's neck for nine minutes. Prosecutors had sought a 30-year sentence.

Another mugshot is of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, with the post saying he received six years in prison for murdering a Black boy. Van Dyke was sentenced in 2019 to nearly seven years in prison after being found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the 2014 death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times after the teen walked away from an encounter with police officers, according to the Associated Press. Van Dyke arrived on scene after other officers had stopped McDonald and, within seconds, fired his weapon. Prosecutors had sought an 18- to 20-year prison sentence for Van Dyke.

The third mugshot is of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who was sentenced by a jury to 10 years in prison in 2019, for the murder of 26-year-old Botham Jean. Guyger was off duty when she entered Jean's apartment thinking it was her own and mistook Jean for a home invader, according to The New York Times. She pulled out her service weapon and fatally shot Jean. Prosecutors had sought a 28-year prison sentence.

Sentencing of Black man

The fourth mugshot is of Michael Thompson, a Black man, who was sentenced to up to 60 years in prison after being convicted of selling 3 pounds of marijuana in Michigan to a police informant in 1994.

After his initial arrest, police searched his home and found 14 weapons, some of which were antiques and kept in a gun safe, according to CNN. Although most of the guns belonged to his wife, Thompson did own some of the firearms and had prior drug convictions.

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Under Michigan's habitual-offender law, a judge added sentencing enhancements to extend Thompson’s prison term, CNN reported. Because of the past convictions, he was sentenced in 1996 to up to 15 years for the drug charges and 40 to 60 years for firearms possession by a felon.

Thompson spent more than two decades in prison and was released in December when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer granted him and three other people clemency and commuted their sentences.

Racial disparities in sentencing

The circumstances of the four cases and the sentences vary in ways that complicate direct comparisons. But racial disparities have long existed in the United States’ criminal justice system. A study by the Council on Criminal Justice, a prison reform think tank, found that disparities between Black and white people in the U.S. prison, jail, probation and parole populations shrank between 2000 and 2016.

However, Black people were still five times more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses and three times more likely to be jailed for property crimes as white people who committed similar offenses.

A separate report by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2014 found Black men were given nearly 20% longer sentences than white men convicted of similar crimes.

"The racial disparities increase with the severity of the sentence imposed," the ACLU wrote.

States that allowed sentencing enhancements under a three-strikes or habitual-offender law were more likely to use them on Black men than white men convicted of similar crimes and with similar criminal backgrounds, the organization found.

Our ruling

An Instagram post claims the combined prison sentences of three white, former police officers convicted of murder were significantly less than what a Black man received after being convicted for selling marijuana.

Thompson, a Black man, was sentenced to up to 60 years for firearms possession by a felon. The sentence for the drug charge was up to 15 years. He served more than 20 years in prison before his sentence was commuted in 2020.

Meanwhile, the three white former police officers were given shorter prison sentences than prosecutors sought for their murder convictions. Their combined prison sentences were for 38.5 years. 

The claim is partly accurate but leaves out significant context about the charges surrounding Thompson’s sentence. We rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Facebook post, June 27, 2021

Facebook post, June 27, 2021

PolitiFact, "The guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin, explained," April 20, 2021

The Associated Press, "Officer who shot black teen sentenced to nearly 7 years," Jan. 18, 2019

The New York Times, "Amber Guyger Is Sentenced to 10 Years for Murder of Botham Jean," Oct. 2, 2019

Star Tribune, "Chauvin sentenced to 22½ years for the murder of George Floyd," June 26, 2021

CNN, "Michael Thompson is free after decades in prison. Now he wants to be an advocate for criminal justice reform," Jan. 29, 2021

Council on Criminal Justice, Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex, December 2019.

ACLU, "Written Submission of the American Civil Liberties Union on Racial Disparities in Sentencing," Oct. 27, 2014

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