Race Colors Judgement: the Affect Race Has on Juries in Decisions of Guilt and Innocence

Topics: Jury, Racism, Voir dire Pages: 9 (2823 words) Published: April 20, 2012
Race Colors Judgment:
The Affect Race Has On Juries in Decisions of Guilt and Innocence

Heather N. Josey

Chestnut Hill College

The following review will focus on jury decision-making of guilt or innocence in a criminal court room. Focus will be made on the effect the race of jurors and defendants has on a jury’s decision-making process and verdict. The proposition put forth in this paper is that having majority White juries is one of the causes of the disproportionate overrepresentation of the minority population in the criminal justice system. Theoretical origins to be conceptualized are aversive racism, race salience (racially charged vs. racially neutral) in trials, jury composition, in group/out-group bias, systematic information processing (cognitive theory) and heuristic information processing (cognitive theory).

Keywords: African-American, aversive racism, race salience, systematic information processing, heuristic information processing

Race Colors Judgment:
The Affect Race Has On Juries in Decisions of Guilt and Innocence

The criminal justice system in the United States is one of the many places that I believe stereotypes are formed. For example, African-Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population but represent 46% of the inmate population who have received sentences of more than one year (Hart, 2006, p.1). Another example of a racial disparity can be seen the percentage of African-Americans who are drug users (14%) and those sentenced for drug offenses (53%) (Sentencing Project, 2009 p.3). “More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole then were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” (Alexander, 2010). However, this is not just a problem within the African-American community. More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities and three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color (www.sentencingproject.org). The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows, that the likelihood for an African-American or Hispanic to be imprisoned is, 18.6% for African-Americans and 10% for Hispanics, while the likelihood for Whites is 3.4% (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005). Brennan and Spohn (2009) showed in their study, “The Joint Effects of Offender Race/Ethnicity and Sex on Sentence Length Decisions in Federal Courts”, that African-American males received a significantly longer sentence (93 months) than White males (86.2 months) (Brennan & Spohn, 2009).

These are just some of the numbers, which cannot be ignored. An important question to ask; why are these racial disparities happening? In the study “White juror bias: An investigation of racial prejudice against Black defendants in the American courtroom”, Sommers & Ellsworth (2001) have a quote, which, I think, sums up the reasoning for studying race and its effect on juries, it came from one of my favorite movies:

“In our courts, when it is a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life…The one place where man ought to get a square deal is a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into the jury box” (From To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee, 1960, p. 220).

The thinking by many social psychologists is “Racism still exists in our society today but is no longer endorsed by explicit racist beliefs or overt acts of prejudice” (Sommers & Ellsworth, 2003). Instead it’s a “Subtle, implicit, or aversive form of racism” (Sommers & Ellsworth, 2003). Whites in our society are taught to embrace egalitarianism (equality) and make a conscious effort to behave non-prejudice, or have non-bias beliefs. However, that does not mean that they still don’t harbor prejudicial attitudes.

In a trial setting aversive racism and race salience, or racially charged vs. racially neutral, go hand and hand. Studies have concluded, a trial that is...
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