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Cumulative Racial Inequalities within Death Penalty Institutions


While prior research has found racial disparities in the administration of death sentences, less is known about the processes generating these patterns. To understand how racial disparities are formed and sustained within death penalty institutions, this study tracks homicide cases as they pass through multiple stages of Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system. Drawing upon the notion of cumulative disadvantage—a process by which initial disadvantages in group-positionality lead to additional relative loses overtime—I focus on the accumulation of racial biases across multiple decision-making points. In chapter 1, multi-level logistic regressions disentangle the effects of agency, neighborhood, and case characteristics on homicide arrests. While several non-racial factors influence arrest patterns, homicides involving minority victims and those occurring in neighborhoods with large minority populations are less likely to be solved. Chapter 2 expands upon these insights, exploring the link between homicide arrests and charging practices. Two-stage selection models indicate that cases involving minority victims are less likely to contain a death penalty eligible charge, and these effects are mediated by the likelihood of arrest. Although defendant race is less influential, it moderates victim race effects, such that Black-on-White homicides are more likely to receive a death penalty eligible charge. Chapter 3 integrates the first two studies by investigating the accumulation of racial disparities across multiple stages of the criminal justice system. Ordered-logistic regressions show that cases involving minority victims are less likely to advance to capital trial, in part, because of racial disparities at earlier stages in the process. Defendant race effects are less consistent, but frequently condition the influence of victim race, with cases involving White victims and minority defendants receiving harsher punishment. Taken together, the dissertation suggests that racial disparities within capital punishment systems arise from a complex chain of decisions, rather than any single decision-making point. These patterns speak to the institutional role of race within criminal justice systems, offering support for the cumulative disadvantage perspective. Moreover, results contribute to contemporary policy debates by highlighting the need for multi-stage policy reforms.

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