These days, racial bias is on the minds of a lot of people — including those involved in the court system. Even though judges are supposed to be neutral figures, the reality is that everyone is human. Biases can subconsciously affect the way that a person views almost any situation — even when that person is trying to adhere to the same standards for everyone.
Recent studies suggest that judges are just as susceptible to the effects of racial bias as anyone else — but the outcomes of that bias may not be what most people expect. If you’re a criminal defendant hoping for leniency from the judge, you’re more likely to receive it from a judge of a different race than your own.
Studies indicate that criminal judges are much more inclined to be punitive toward defendants of the same racial identity as themselves than members of another race. In fact, the differences are high enough to be somewhat alarming. If you’re a juvenile, you can expect a judge of your own race to give you a sentence that averages around 14 percent tougher than what you’d receive from a judge of another race. Similarly, your chances of getting jail time go up around 5 percent if your sentence is decided by a judge whose race is the same as your own.
One of the prevailing theories by sociologists is that judges engage in a little “tough love” toward members of the same race as themselves. They feel more insight into the lives of defendants of the same race — and less comfortable making harsh judgments on the lives of others. Another theory is that judges are so eager to avoid the appearance of favoritism toward members of their own race that they instinctively move in the opposite direction.
Whatever the reasons, it’s important for criminal defendants and their attorneys to be aware that the bias exists. That can influence how aggressively a defense attorney seeks to appeal to a judge’s sense of fairness or unconscious prejudices to counter the issues seen with racial bias.