Psychologists examine how race affects juvenile sentencing

May 24, 2012

When it comes to holding children accountable for crimes they commit, race matters.

According to a new study by Stanford , if people imagine a juvenile offender to be black, they are more willing to hand down harsher sentences to all .

"These results highlight the fragility of protections for juveniles when race is in play," said Aneeta Rattan, lead author of the study, which appears this week in the journal PLoS ONE.

Historically, the courts have protected juveniles from the most severe sentences. It has been recognized that children are different from adults – they don't use adult reasoning and don't have impulse control to the same degree.

The Supreme Court has barred the death penalty for juveniles and, in 2010, said life without parole for non-homicide crimes violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Currently the court is considering two cases regarding juveniles involved in murders who were sentenced to life without parole. The justices are weighing whether they will further limit harsh sentences for young people.

The Stanford research was inspired, in part, by the cases most recently before the high court, said Jennifer Eberhardt, senior author of the study.

"The statistics out there indicate that there are racial disparities in sentencing juveniles who have committed severe crimes," said Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology. "That led us to wonder, to what extent does race play a role in how people think about juvenile status?"

The study involved a nationally representative sample of 735 white Americans. Only white participants were used because whites are statistically overrepresented on juries, in the legal field and in the judiciary.

The participants were asked to read about a 14-year-old male with 17 prior juvenile convictions who brutally raped an elderly woman. Half of the respondents were told the offender was black; the other half were told he was white. The difference in race was the only change between the two stories.

The researchers then asked the participants two questions dealing with sentencing and perception.

The first: To what extent do you support life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles when no one was killed?

The second: How much do you believe that juveniles who commit crimes such as these should be considered less blameworthy than an adult who commits a similar crime?

The study found that participants who had in mind a black offender more strongly endorsed a policy of sentencing juveniles convicted of violent crimes to life in prison without parole compared to respondents who had in mind a white offender.

"The fact that imagining a particular target could influence your perceptions of a policy that would affect an entire class of people, we think, is pretty important to know," Eberhardt said.

The black-offender group also rated juvenile offenders as more similar to adults in their culpability than did respondents in the white-offender group.

"Race is shifting how they are thinking about juveniles," Eberhardt said. "So the protected status the offenders have as juveniles is threatened."

The study took into account racial bias and political ideology, yet neither accounted for these effects.

"The findings showed that people without racial animus or bias are affected by race as much as those with bias," said Carol Dweck, another of the study's authors.

"That suggests they believe black offenders will likely be the same when they're adults but white offenders are in a developmental period and could be very different . This starts breaking down the protections against the most severe ," said Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor in the Department of Psychology.

The study's authors are hopeful the findings will spur a conversation about how race affects sentencing of juveniles.

"We think about the legal world as having rules and you apply the rules equally to everyone," said Rattan, who is a postdoctoral research scholar in the Department of Psychology. "What we're really showing is that there's a potential for that to not be the case."

"And that the rules themselves may be biased already," Dweck added.

Explore further: New 'Surveyman' software promises to revolutionize survey design and accuracy

More information: The paper, "Race and the Fragility of the Legal Distinction Between Juveniles and Adults," by Aneeta Rattan, Cynthia S. Levine, Carol S. Dweck and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, was published in PLoS ONE on May 23.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How young is too young for life in prison?

Mar 21, 2012

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments related to two separate murder cases in which 14-year-olds were sentenced to life without parole. The court will take up the constitutionality of ...

Professor examines race and sentencing

Feb 23, 2012

A Sam Houston State University professor is working on a series of studies that examine the effects of race and ethnicity on state and federal sentencing outcomes, including incarceration and sentence length decisions.

Juvenile probation formats studied

Nov 08, 2005

Two Kansas State University sociology graduate students have found placing juvenile offenders in a non-traditional probation program reduces recidivism.

Recommended for you

World population likely to peak by 2070

Oct 23, 2014

World population will likely peak at around 9.4 billion around 2070 and then decline to around 9 billion by 2100, according to new population projections from IIASA researchers, published in a new book, World Population and ...

Bullying in schools is still prevalent, national report says

Oct 23, 2014

Despite a dramatic increase in public awareness and anti-bullying legislation nationwide, the prevalence of bullying is still one of the most pressing issues facing our nation's youth, according to a report by researchers ...

Study examines effects of credentialing, personalization

Oct 23, 2014

Chris Gamrat, a doctoral student in learning, design and technology, recently had his study—completed alongside Heather Zimmerman, associate professor of education; Jaclyn Dudek, a doctoral student studying learning, design ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Smashin_Z_1885
1 / 5 (1) May 25, 2012
Race isn't really what matters. Instead, it has to do with poor breeding, or more specifically, low-quality blood lines. This has to do with inbreeding among populations, and, the smaller the gene pool, the lower quality the blood line (German Peasant Stock, for example, which is thought to have resulted in the mutation resulting in blonde hair and blue eyes. While it can be attractive to look at, this sort of human carries a dangerous gene, as the blonde gene is related to the ginger gene (red hair), and is known to cause rage and other violent outbursts within the affected individual) History, interbreeding among white trash produces one of four basic criminal types: 1) Low-set ears type, 2) long-face 'creepy' look breed, and 3) Retardation of the mind degrading to sociopathic personality disorder type breed.
If you want to get rid of crime permanently, the Government must take initiatives to halt breeding of persons deemed "inadequate for reproduction".