Jarvis DeBerry of The Times-Picayune reports that three LSU economics professors have published a working paper at the website for the National Bureau of Economic Research which suggests that juvenile offenders in Louisiana are likelier to get harsher punishment from a judge of their own race.
The paper, written by Briggs Depew, Ozkan Erien, and Naci Mocan, found that black juveniles who are randomly assigned to black judges are 20 percent more likely to be incarcerated (as opposed to being placed on probation), and they receive sentences that are 14 percent longer. The same results were found for white juveniles who are assigned to white judges.(NOLA.com).
Jeff Guo of The Washington Post reports that the paper poses a few theories on why this bias may be present in Louisiana.
The first theory posed is that these decisions may have something to do with the race of the victims. No data was collected on victims, but research shows that white people are more likely to be victims of crimes perpetrated by white people, and black people are more likely to be victims of black crimes (Washington Post). The researches suggest that judges may be more sympathetic to victims of their own race and sentence defendants accordingly.
Second, the bias could be a result of familiarity or “tough love” (Washington Post). Since judges may be more knowledgeable about people of the same race, they may feel more familiar handing out tougher sentences. In the words of Guo, “a black judge could have more insight into whether a black defendant could benefit from more jail or probation time.”
Another theory is that judges could be concerned about seeming prejudiced. Judges may go easier on those of a different race to safeguard against accusations of racism, and be tougher on those of the same race to avoid accusations of favoritism. A Cornell University study has shown that unconscious racial bias affects white judges dealing with black defendants. The conclusion reached by the LSU study is that these lenient sentences may be a result of overcompensation (Washington Post).
The only true conclusions that can be drawn from the LSU study is that diversity matters in the courtroom. The study comes at a time when federal courts like the Supreme Court are becoming multicultural, rather than just male and white, and research is showing that this change could in fact affect trial outcomes.
Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotamayor has said, “Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see… My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar.” (Washington Post)
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