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Study: Judges Treat Juveniles Of The Same Race As Themselves More Harshly


Let's hear a surprising insight into the racial disparities of our justice system. We hear a lot about those disparities. For example, African-American men are imprisoned at a far higher rate than white men. We could give more examples. But there was something unexpected in a study that is brought to us now by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: So what's the study about?

VEDANTAM: The study comes from Naci Mocan at Louisiana State University, Steve. He recently decided to analyze thousands of cases in the Louisiana juvenile justice system between 1996 and 2012. Now, Louisiana has a system that is a social scientist's dream because defendants are assigned at random to different judges, meaning that you have the makings of a randomized experiment. Mocan said the setting prompted a question.

NACI MOCAN: Whether or not, for example, a white judge treats a white defendant differently than a black defendant and similarly a black judge treats a white defendant differently from a black defendant.

INSKEEP: OK, that's his question. I'm sure somebody thinks the answer is obvious - the white judge treats the black defendants differently, maybe worse, for example. Is that was happened in this experiment?

VEDANTAM: No, it's not, Steve. Looking only at cases where the juvenile pleaded guilty to the charge, Mocan does not find that judges treat juvenile defendants belonging to their own race more leniently. If anything, it's the opposite. Here he is again.

MOCAN: So if a defendant is facing a judge of the same race, that defendant is about 20 percent more likely to receive incarceration instead of being placed on probation. And also, that defendant is receiving sentences that are about, like, 14 percent longer, which is about three months longer than otherwise.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Why would a judge, whatever their personal beliefs, send someone of their own race away for a longer period of time.

VEDANTAM: Is not clear, Steve, but there are several possible theories. One is there's evidence from lab experiments that people are sometimes more willing to punish members of an in-group for violating a norm. You might be willing to say someone from a different group doesn't know what's expected of them, but people from the in-group should know better. Another explanation is that judges are actually trying to set these youngsters straight, and they're giving harsher punishments to those from their own group because they care more about these defendants.

INSKEEP: Saying, you're one of my people; I expect more of you.

VEDANTAM: Yes. And they think that harsher sentences might actually head off bigger problems down the road. Another explanation is that this really has to do with the race of the victim and not the perpetrators. Mocan's insight is that crime is usually perpetrated on victims who are of the same race as the criminal. Here he is again.

MOCAN: If judges, for example, have more sympathy for victims of their own race, of course, they may tend to punish perpetrators who harm these victims. But in this case, of course, the perpetrator is also of the same race.

VEDANTAM: A number of other studies suggest that often unconscious biases are acting on judges as they make decisions. I think what this demonstrates is that, without necessarily the judges wanting to be biased, you have biased outcomes. One possible solution is that you have panels of judges look at individual cases. Of course, that could significantly increase the caseload, so that might not be a popular idea.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks, as always.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who has a heavy caseload. He is our social science correspondent and also the host of the new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior, called "Hidden Brain." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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