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Longer sentences given to black drug defendants, says Record-Eagle investigation

Traverse City Record-Eagle

Earlier this month, the Traverse City Record-Eagle published a story called “Race Against Time," which told the tale of Ronald Norfleet, an African-American man from Detroit who was sentenced to 56 years in prison for dealing heroin in Grand Traverse County.

The Record-Eagle ran the numbers – and discovered that over the last four years, African-American felony drug defendants in Grand Traverse County were sent to prison for an average of 43 months – compared to 12 months for white defendants.

Matt Troutman is the Record-Eagle reporter who wrote the story. He spoke with “All Things Considered” host Aaron Selbig about the newspaper's reporting.

Troutman says the Record-Eagle looked at 387 felony drug cases since 2012.

“What we found was that between 2012 and 2016, the African-American defendants in these felony drug cases received three times longer sentences than their white counterparts,” says Troutman.

Troutman says that disparity in sentencing holds up whether the defendants are from Grand Traverse County or not.

“If you look at local black defendants, their sentences are three times longer than local white defendants,” he says. “When you expand it out to non-locals … African-American sentences are four times longer than non-local white defendants.”

Reaction to the story has been mixed, say Troutman.

County Prosecutor Bob Cooney argued that the drug cases need to be looked at on an individual basis, and the newspaper’s story didn’t properly account for the criminal histories of the defendants, which play a part in sentencing. But Troutman says the sentences for black “habitual offenders” still outpace those of their white counterparts by three times.

Troutman says some Record-Eagle readers have rejected the paper’s reporting as “race baiting,” while most reader reactions have been positive.

"Race Against Time" is the first story in series about prison sentences the Record-Eagle has planned.