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Researchers examine federal sex offenses and racial disparities in sentencing

Researchers examine federal sex offenses and racial disparities in sentencing

FEBRUARY 10, 2021 — In the past two decades the U.S. Congress has enacted several pieces of legislation aimed to increase the punishment for those convicted of federal sex offenses. In a recent article published in the journal Sexual Abuse by UTSA criminology and criminal justice professors Richard Hartley and Alexander Testa and alumnus Erica Martinez ’20, the researchers explore the nature of punishment for these offenses over time.

“Most of the existing studies of federal sentencing have focused on understanding what influences judicial decisions and whether racial/ethnic disparities in federal sentencing practices exist, regardless of the type of crime charged,” Hartley explained. “Little research, however, has examined the determinants of sentencing outcomes for those convicted of federal sex offenses. Studies examining racial/ethnic disparities in federal sex offense cases subsequent to enhanced legislation specifically are even more sparse.”


In sex abuse cases, convicted individuals who are Black and Hispanic are receiving harsher punishments over time.



In the federal criminal justice system sex offenses fall into two main categories: child pornography and sexual abuse. Punishment severity and the number of federal sex offense convictions in federal courts have increased in the last two decades. The racial/ethnic makeup of individuals prosecuted for federal sex offenses has also drastically changed over this same time period.

Using federal sentencing data from the United States Sentencing Commission, Hartley, Testa and Martinez utilized statistical regression to examine differences in punishment for the two types of offenses and whether racial/ethnic disparities in sentence length and departures from the federal sentencing guidelines changed over time.

The study aimed to examine sentence length and sentencing guideline departure outcomes in federal sex offense cases utilizing data across 12 years (fiscal years 2006–2017) for those convicted of sexual abuse, and across eight years (fiscal years 2010–2017) for child pornography.

Evidence examined by the researchers generally demonstrates that male and minority defendants receive harsher punishments than their female and white counterparts convicted of similar offenses.

The researchers say the findings of this study demonstrate that in sex abuse cases, convicted individuals who are Black and Hispanic are receiving harsher punishments over time even after accounting for factors such as age, sex, criminal history and offense seriousness. In child pornography cases, however, sentence lengths for Native Americans are increasing over time while those for whites, Black and Hispanics are decreasing.


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Testa noted that “our analyses demonstrate that the shifting nature of the racial and ethnic composition of those convicted of federal sex offenses has corresponded with changes in punishment practices that has increased racial and ethnic disparity in federal sentencing among those convicted of federal sex offenses.”

Ingrid Wright



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