A new study by Stanford psychologists revealed that if people picture a juvenile offender as being black, they are more likely to be in favor of harsher sentences for all juvenile offenders.
The study polled a nationally representative sample of 735 white Americans. The authors chose to use only white participants because that demographic is statistically overrepresented on juries, in the legal field and in the judiciary.
The participants were asked to read about a 14-year-old male, with 17 prior juvenile convictions, who brutally raped an elderly woman. Half of the participants were told the juvenile was white; the other half were told he was black. This was the only difference.
Participants who were given a black offender more strongly endorsed policies that send juveniles convicted of violent crimes to life in prison without parole, compared to respondents 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,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, senior author of the study and associate professor of psychology.
The Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for juveniles and ruled in 2010 that life without parole for non-homicide crimes violates the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to impose further restrictions on juvenile punishments. Eberhardt said the study was partially inspired by current cases before the Supreme Court.
“The statistics out there indicate that there are racial disparities in sentencing juveniles who have committed severe crimes,” Eberhardt said. “That led us to wonder, to what extent does race play a role in how people think about juvenile status?”