This is an archived article.

February 17, 1999

Does race affect outcome of criminal cases? Reports portraying juveniles differently lead to tougher sentencing recommendations for blacks

For three decades social scientists have been trying to figure out, with little success, how a person’s race affects the outcome of criminal cases. Now researchers have found a missing link — court reports prepared prior to sentencing by probation officers that consistently portray black and white juvenile offenders differently, thus leading to harsher sentencing recommendations for blacks.

“What struck me was the profoundly different ways the reports described children who are seemingly different only by their race,” said George Bridges, a University of Washington professor of sociology and lead author of a study that examined juvenile court cases in Washington State. “The children would be charged with the same crime, be the same age and have the same criminal history, but the different ways they were described was just shocking.”

Bridges said that the reports tend to depict crimes committed by blacks as being caused by internal attributes or aspects of their character, such as being disrespectful toward authority or condoning criminal behavior, while white juvenile crime was more likely to be blamed on negative environmental factors, such as being exposed to excessive family conflict or hanging out with other delinquents.

“As a society we tend to hold people more responsible for their character than for their social environment. This practice is rooted in how we explain others’ behavior, and this is the first time that such a link has been documented in official records of criminal cases,” he explained. “I think it is connected to unconscious racial stereotyping that most people hold of other racial groups. People have the tendency to view and classify people differently, so it shouldn’t surprise us that probation officers judge people the same way others do.”

“The link we found shows why blacks juveniles are receiving more severe penalties. Black youth are seen by probation officers as more personally responsible and blameworthy for their crimes and thus are considered more dangerous and at greater risk for reoffending.”

Bridges, who has been studying racial disparity in Washington’s justice system for a decade, was emphatic in not labeling the probation officers’ behavior as racist. “The officers care about these kids very much and this is not racial hatred. Rather, it is a very subtle, complex form of prejudicial beliefs.”

The study, which he conducted with Sara Steen, a recent UW doctoral graduate and now an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, was published in the American Sociological Review.

In the study, Bridges and Steen looked at a sample of 233 juvenile cases from three Washington counties drawn from a larger pool of cases that Bridges examined earlier this decade. That study found minority youth, particularly blacks, were more likely to be detained, charged with a criminal offense, tried and sentenced to confinement than are white juveniles.
Hispanics, Asians and other minorities were excluded in the study because of the small numbers of cases that came up by chance. Of the 233 cases analyzed, 170 involved white youths and 63 concerned blacks. Males were involved in the overwhelming bulk of the cases, 201, compared to 32 for females, which is representative of the gender makeup of the state’s juvenile court caseload.
The reports that Bridges and Steen studied are prepared by probation officers prior to sentencing by a judge. These reports document facts about offenders, their family and their life circumstances, and make sentencing recommendations to the court. The fact that the reports tend to characterize black and white offenders differently is crucial.

“Internal attributes, such as being disrespectful towards authority, are viewed as character flaws reflecting that a youth is less amenable to treatment and change than another juvenile who is portrayed as being influenced by environmental factors,” Bridges explained. “The sense of the court is that a youth whose criminal behavior is caused by aspects of his or personality is much more dangerous and a greater risk for reoffending. And there is a tendency of the court to punish these people much more severely.”

Bridges noted that since 1978 Washington law has mandated that the only criteria that can be used in dictating juvenile sentencing are prior offenses, the severity of a crime and the age of the offender. “So, in this state we should not see the kinds of findings we’ve uncovered. The evidence we have documents that racial stereotypes are very powerful,” he said.

Bridges indicated that further research is needed to find out how judges are affected by the reports prepared by probation officers and to check if similar stereotyping behavior plays out in adult court.
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For more information, contact Bridges at (206) 616-7175 or bridges@u.washington.edu; Steen at (615) 386-9850 or sara.steen@vanderbilt.edu