Black and Latinx people account for a disproportionately high number of criminal cases in Massachusetts and tend to be given longer sentences than their white counterparts when convicted, according to a study released Wednesday by the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard.

Researcher Felix Owusu, who helped author the study, said his research shows racial disparities in charging, sentencing and every other step of the process.

“When you go to a prison, you see that there are far too many people of color,” said Owusu, a PhD candidate in public policy at Harvard and a research fellow at the Criminal Justice Policy Program, in an interview with GBH News. “That's the end of several processes that generated that kind of outcome. We want to think about all the decision points that led to that outcome.”

The report found that Black people, who make up 6.5 percent of the state’s population, make up 17.1 percent of defendents in criminal court cases; Latinx people make up 8.7 percent of the state’s population, and 18.3 percent of criminal cases; white people, 74 percent of the state’s population, make up 58.7 percent of those cases.

“This really speaks to a couple of things; this overrepresentation in terms of who faces these outcomes, and adjudication at all,” Owusu said. “And then, conditional on having a court case, people of color tend to get harsher sentences. Initial charging decisions are an important driver of these large disparities in incarceration sentence length.”

Researchers saw the biggest racial disparities in drug and weapons charges, and in cases where mandatory minimum sentences were applied. “We believe that this evidence is consistent with racially disparate initial charging practices leading to weaker initial positions in the plea bargaining process for Black defendants,” the report reads, “which then translate into longer incarceration sentences for similar offenses.”

Brook Hopkins, another author of the study and the executive director of the criminal justice and policy program at Harvard Law School, said it’s important to view this process as a timeline, and any racial disparities along the way as factors that play a role.

“An initial charge that includes a mandatory minimum increases the leverage that a prosecutor has to get a guilty plea,” Hopkins said, “and a guilty plea with a longer sentence attached.”

According to the study, Black people who are sentenced to incarceration receive sentences that are, on average, 168 days longer than those of their white counterparts. For Latinx people, those sentences are, on average, 148 days longer.

Researchers considered factors other than race when examining sentence length, such as defendants’ criminal history, demographics, initial charge severity, court jurisdiction and neighborhood characteristics. After accounting for these factors, the study found that Black and Latinx people are still sentenced to 31 to 25 days longer than their white counterparts, “suggesting that racial disparities in sentence length cannot solely be explained by the contextual factors that we consider and permeate the entire criminal justice process,” the report reads.

Though Black and Latinx defendants tend to face more serious initial charges that are more likely to carry a mandatory or statutory minimum sentence, those defendants are convicted of offenses roughly equal in seriousness to their white counterparts, according to the study. Hopkins said this fact, “based on a lot of former research and contextual knowledge that we have,” is because "Black people are overcharged" in the first place. “Though those cases don't actually pan out once it comes to final adjudication, that there’s a lower conviction rate as a result of cases being dismissed that never should have been brought in the first place,” she said.

“I think it's reflective of the national conversation about how we should be reimagining our justice system,” Owusu said. “There's not just variation in how people are treated, but also at a higher level, what things we choose to criminalize and what things we choose to use a law enforcement and court process to address, in terms of social problems.”

Owusu said he saw disparities in offenses like driving under the influence, where some cases were responded to with a public health approach, and others received a more carceral response. “People are getting dispositions that allow them to actually have their cases dismissed, they’re getting education and they're getting diverted,” he said. “That's a choice that we've made in terms of that kind of approach, and we could be making that choice in many, many other contexts.”

Owusu said the report was partially motivated by a request from Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, and from “numbers that were coming out, looking at state prison populations and just findings that people of color are substantially overrepresented in our state prison populations.”

This research falls into a larger context of studies on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Hopkins said, because it fills in some of the gaps to explain how the process works.

“This particular project is important because it helps us understand in a more specific way the points at which those disparities are the worst and the specific factors that seem to be driving those disparities,” Hopkins said. “We now have a more detailed view of what's happening, and that allows systems, actors and advocates to target reform efforts based on the data.”

Owusu said the extensive, 100-page report, which reviewed 553,801 cases across the state, helps to add to that larger body of work on the subject of racial disparities in criminal justice.

“Whenever you see a disparity in terms of sentencing, you have to keep in mind that people of color are also more likely to be in the system at all, and then face that disparity,” Owusu said. “As a Black person in Massachusetts, that speaks to the exposure to these punishments. This stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum.”