Racial disparities in legal outcomes: On policing, charging decisions, and criminal trial proceedings

From Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (PIBBS)

2014 was replete with social unrest to protest police brutality and racial inequality. With many calling for policy reform to improve race problems in the U.S. criminal justice system, this research suggests that the issue is less political and more behavioral. Researchers recommend increased documentation, institutional diversity, and bias training.

“Individuals with different ideologies and political affiliations may well debate police enforcement priorities or factors that contribute to crime. However, people on both sides of the political aisle could agree that racial disparities in charging decisions, jury verdicts, and sentencing violate core American principles related to justice,” wrote the researchers Samuel R. Sommers and Satia A. Marotta of Tufts University.  Analyzing racial disparities in policing, charging decisions and trial outcomes, Sommers and Marotta recommend three new policy interventions focused on data, diversity, and training.



Life-altering decisions are made every day in the legal world. Police officers make split-second judgments about whether an individual poses a threat. Prosecutors sort through conflicting accounts of an event in determining whether to charge a suspect. Juries try to reconcile complex evidence in criminal trials and render a unanimous verdict. These decisions often hinge on interpretations of subjective, ambiguous information. Besides being difficult, these decisions are also ripe with the potential for bias, despite their high-stakes nature. The present article focuses on one potential bias, racial disparity in legal outcomes. Here, “bias” refers not just to intentional discrimination or decisions based on overt prejudice (although,of course, as for everyone, some police officers, attorneys, judges, and jurors likely hold conscious prejudices and act on them). Rather, our review of the behavioral science research literature indicates that unconscious—or implicit—racial biases also taint legal decision making. Specifically, this review examines the influence of race on (a) policing, (b) charging decisions, and (c) criminal trial outcomes. Policy interventions include bias training, increasing institutional diversity, and empirically documenting the disparities’ scope. Addressing these disparities also requires acknowledging that all of us, regardless of personal ideology or professional oath, are susceptible to such biases, even when making life-and-death decisions.

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Article details
Samuel R. Sommers and Satia A. Marotta
Racial Disparities in Legal Outcomes: On Policing, Charging Decisions, and Criminal Trial Proceedings Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences October 2014 1: 103-111, doi:10.1177/2372732214548431

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