People are more likely to assign blame to juvenile defendants if they imagined them as black, increasing the likelihood of supporting a harsher punishment for them, a study released last week concludes.
The researchers from Stanford University's psychology department suggest their findings may have broad implications for how juveniles are seen and treated in a criminal-justice system that is predominantly white, from lawyers to jurists to jurors.
The legal system's assumption of less culpability for juveniles affords them some protection against the harshest punishments for severe crimes, but the conclusions from this study indicate that those protections may not hold up when factoring in a young person's race.
The study, conducted with about 650 white Americans, looked at whether switching a juvenile defendant's racial description to either black or white would change whether the participant was more likely to find the juvenile to be responsible and to support a harsher punishment. The researchers found that it did.
Participants who had read "black" were significantly more likely to say that the individual was responsible and thus more supportive of a life in prison without parole sentence, said Aneeta Rattan, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral research scholar at the university.
"Using this one word to cue race got people to change their attitudes and perceptions to policy regarding juveniles," Rattan said, later adding, "We really have to ask how much bigger that effect can be in the real world."
In the real world, figures such as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman exist, adding layers of complexities that one word in a controlled study cannot predict.
The study found that the racial bias was not necessarily based on any preexisting bias or political affiliation, suggesting that participants tended to unconsciously see black juveniles as more responsible for their crimes than whites, regardless of age.
As a result, respondents were more willing to accept a sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile convicted in a severe crime if he were black than if he were white.
This racial bias could be the fine line between deciding if a young defendant should be handed a lesser punishment under the protection of juvenile court or be tried as an adult — and thereby face more severe consequences.
Only white Americans were included in the research because the group is most overrepresented in the nation's jury pools and the justice system overall, Rattan said. The study is meant to serve as the foundation for a deeper look at the juvenile-justice system.
In 2009, about one in 17 youths was arrested, a total of 1.9 million, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection. Of that total, about one in 20 was white and one in eight was black.