YORK COUNTY, Va. – Black men statistically received harsher prison sentences than white men who commit the same crimes, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
“The simple answer is racism,” said Brad Haywood, a public defender in northern Virginia. “It's no shock to me that somebody who's Black goes into a courtroom and isn't given the fair shake that somebody who's white gets.”
The disproportionate sentencing of black men Lawrence Stephens and Darnel Nolen compared to their white co-defendants in a York County robbery case recently brought national attention to the issue.
Stephens was 18-years-old when he robbed two people inside their York County home at gunpoint at the direction of 29-year-old Paul Michael Melendres, his white co-worker from a fast food restaurant on the Peninsula.
Nolen, who was 17-years-old at the time, helped Stephens and Melendres carry out the crime. Judge Prentis Smiley, Jr. sentenced Stephens to 1,823 years in prison while sentencing Nolen to 33 years in prison. However, the judge sentenced Melendres to 10 years on the same charges.
“I felt like I died in court that day,” said Stephens, who was released from prison along with Nolen in January, due to a pardon from former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. “The criminal justice system in America, it just needs a lot of work […] considering the way that young black men are being unfairly sentenced, as opposed to [their] white peers.”
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, black male offenders on average received sentences 20.4 percent longer than white males who commit the same crimes. Additionally, according to the Virginia State Crime Commission, Black males were found to receive sentences that were 50 percent longer than white males.
“Is this is a fair system if the color of your skin determines your punishment more than what you actually did?” said Amy Fettig with The Sentencing Project.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization’s analysis found cracks in the American criminal justice system that can allow inherent biases of judges and prosecutors to influence the severity of charges and length of punishments for black and brown people compared to whites who commit the same crimes.
“Our systems of power have been rooted in racism from their inception,” said Portsmouth Commonwealth Attorney Stephanie Morales. “We have system actors who are in positions of power like myself, prosecutors, judges, police officers, who won't admit that, and largely that is a part of the problem.”
Morales, a Black woman, said she’s doing her part to level the playing field by focusing on prosecuting violent crimes like murder, and not prosecuting non-violent crimes like marijuana possession.
“We see second chances to be given to people who don't look like me,” Morales said.
Morales said prosecutors in Virginia do not have a path to address excessive sentences of the past.
“As prosecutors, we cannot look at a case and say, this is grossly disproportionate, this is grossly unfair,” Morales said.
Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, and getting pardoned by a governor depends on the office holder’s discretion. However, a so-called “Second Look Law” bill being considered in the current General Assembly session aims to address excessive sentences. The measure, which has bipartisan support, would give imprisoned people a chance to ask the court to make changes to their sentence.
“We have a lot of work to do to reform this, but we can start by ensuring people who are currently serving sentences, sentences that are largely unfair, a second chance,” Fettig said.