When people imagine a juvenile offender to be black, they are more supportive of handing down harsher sentences to all juveniles, according to a new study by Stanford psychologists.
“These results highlight the fragility of protections for juveniles when race is in play,” said Aneeta Rattan, Ph.D., lead author of the study, which appeared in the journal PloS ONE.
Historically, the courts have worked to protect juveniles from the harshest sentences. It has been recognized that children are different from adults — they are not capable of fully adult reasoning or have the same impulse control.
The Supreme Court has banned 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.
The Stanford research was inspired, in part, by two recent juvenile cases put before the high court, said Jennifer Eberhardt, Ph.D., 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 included a nationally representative sample of 735 white Americans. Only white volunteers were used since whites are statistically overrepresented on juries, in the legal field and in the judiciary.
Study participants were asked to read a story about a 14-year-old male with 17 prior juvenile convictions who brutally raped an elderly woman. Half of the volunteers were told the offender was black; the other half was told he was white. The difference in race was the only difference between the two reports.
The participants were then asked two questions regarding 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 the group who had been told of a black perpetrator more strongly supported a policy of sentencing juveniles convicted of violent crimes to life in prison without parole compared to participants 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 criminals as more similar to adults in responsibility 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 considered 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, Ph.D., 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 adults. This starts breaking down the protections against the most severe sentences,” said Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor in the Department of Psychology.
The researchers hope the findings will generate 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.”
Dweck added, “And that the rules themselves may be biased already.”