Researchers Say Unconscious Racial Biases Can Taint Legal Decisions


After the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at police hands, angry demonstrators and subdued academics alike have charged that the U.S. legal process is tainted by racism, says Pacific Standard magazine. Polls suggest most white Americans don’t see things that way, leading to something of a standoff. In an overview of recent research, Tufts University psychologists Samuel Sommers and Satia Marotta write that while overt prejudice is a factor in some cases, “unconscious—or implicit—racial biases can also taint legal decision-making.” “All of us, regardless of personal ideology or professional oath, are susceptible to such biases, even when making life-and-death decisions,” they say in the journal Policy Insights From the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Sommers and Marotta examine the way unconscious racism influences decision making at three levels of the legal process: policing; the decision of district attorneys to press charges; and the conduct and outcomes of criminal trials. The researchers cite the federal court ruling on the New York police “Stop and Frisk” policy. “Of the more than four millions stops the NYPD conducted between 2004 and 2012,” they write, “52 percent were of African-Americans and 31 percent of Latinos, despite respective general population rates in the city of 23 percent and 29 percent—and although stops of African-Americans and Latinos were actually less likely to yield weapons or contraband than were stops of whites.” They report there is “a dearth of data on prosecutorial discretion.”

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