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.