People's opinions on whether youth who break the law should be sentenced as adults vary significantly when a single word -- black or white -- is used to describe the defendant, a new study by Stanford University's Department of Psychology has found.
Those sentiments crossed genders, political persuasions and feelings about race among the 735 white Americans who took part in the study, "Race and the Fragility of the Legal Distinction between Juveniles and Adults." The report was published May 23 in the journal PloS ONE.
The study spotlights glaring disparities that could lead to the loss of leniency for youth in the criminal-justice system, authors Aneeta Rattan, Cynthia S. Levine, Carol S. Weck and Jennifer L. Eberhardt wrote.
The law currently protects young defendants from harsher adult sentences because they are considered "less adult." Youths have less-developed brains and are more impulsive and less capable of gauging consequences.
But the idea of "adult time for adult crime" is increasingly being debated in the high courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court has so far maintained greater leniency for children. The court struck down the death penalty for minors in 2005 and in May 2010 determined that young offenders' less-adult status should protect them from life in prison without parole in non-homicide cases. But that decision was split 5-4, the researchers noted.
On March 20, the court heard arguments in two murder cases in which 14-year-olds were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and debated whether such sentences are unconstitutional.
"We were inspired by a recent Supreme Court case in 2010 that addressed the constitutionality of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases. ... Although the statistics on these and other types of severe punishment suggest that there are racial disparities in who receives the harshest of punishments, no research had looked at the role of race in people's support for these types of sentences," lead author Aneeta Rattan wrote in an email to the Weekly.
The statistics overwhelmingly suggest racial disparities in sentencing, particularly for blacks, she said.
"When the death penalty was legal for juvenile offenders prior to 2005, the majority of those sentenced to death were African American. Although not all states report life-without-parole sentencing statistics by race, those that do report their statistics, such as Florida, also show that the majority of recipients are African American," Rattan said.
The Stanford study used white participants exclusively because whites as a group are over-represented in jury pools, in the legal field and the judiciary, the researchers said. Roughly half the participants were male and half female, and all were American.
The researchers gave two groups of participants a written scenario based on one of the Supreme Court cases. In it, a 14-year-old male with 17 prior juvenile convictions brutally raped an elderly woman and received a life sentence without parole.
The scenario was identical for both groups, with one exception: the race of the defendant.
The participants were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with two questions: "To what extent do you support life sentences with no possibility of parole for juveniles when they have been convicted of serious violent crimes in which no one was killed?" and "How much do you believe that juveniles who commit crimes such as these should be considered less blameworthy than an adult who committed the same crime?"
Participants who read the scenario with the black defendant supported life-without-parole sentences to a significantly greater degree (an average of 4.40 on a scale of 1 to 6) than those reading about the white defendant (who ranked their support at 4.18). And a black child's culpability was more strongly viewed as on par with an adult's -- 4.42 on a scale of 1 to 6 -- than a white child's (4.14), the study found.
A study participant's gender, political attitude and feelings of warmth or coldness toward blacks did not have a significant effect on their perceptions, even among liberals, according to the researchers.
"We believe that there are cognitive associations that people hold with different groups, and that these cognitive associations might account for why both people low in prejudice and those high in prejudice are affected by race.
"For example, our results suggest that people may 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," Rattan said.
The research raises the possibility that exposure to black convicts or to racially coded language could change judges' and juries' perceptions of guilt and the sentences they hand down, the researchers said.
"This would have troubling implications for juvenile justice ... because it suggests that juvenile status may be more fragile than previously considered," the researchers concluded.
The implications could also affect more than unfair sentences for individuals. Racial bias could influence policies that are ultimately applied to everyone, the researchers said.